Enough stuff?

Lincoln papers suspending search

 The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project is shutting down the search for documents at the national archives in Washington, D.C., where the bulk of papers related to the Great Emancipator have been located.

The project has two researchers based at the archives. Illinois Times has learned that both will lose their jobs on June 30. The cuts will result in just three researchers remaining at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield and is the latest in a series of reductions that began in the fall of 2015, when the project had a dozen researchers.

Chris Wills, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that oversees the project, confirmed that the search has been suspended, but he did not say that it will be curtailed permanently.

“The search for Lincoln-related documents at the National Archives is on hold while we focus on how to handle the 100,000 documents that have been collected and what additional material should be gathered,” Wills wrote in an email. “The current priority for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln is to improve its policies and procedures so that our staff’s hard work and taxpayers’ money is not wasted.”

Alan Lowe, ALPLM director, this spring put together an ad hoc group of five experts from around the nation to recommend the best way to publish documents that have been gathered since 2000, when the project, which began as an effort to gather papers related to Lincoln’s work as a lawyer, broadened its search to include every document read or written by the Great Emancipator. The IHPA last week denied a request by Illinois Times for correspondence between agency officials and the five experts, saying that the newspaper’s request was overly broad.

The National Archives have yielded about 75 percent of the papers gathered by researchers who’ve been working since 2000 to gather every document ever read or written by Lincoln, according to testimony at a recent civil service commission hearing in which former project director Daniel Stowell is appealing his January dismissal. Vast portions of the archives remain unsearched by the papers project, including U.S. Army records from the Civil War.

Treasures found at the archives include a copy of Lincoln’s second annual message to Congress delivered in 1862, which researchers discovered in 2012. “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve,” Lincoln wrote in the message that is a precursor to modern State of the Union addresses. “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, this last, best hope of earth.”

More recently, researchers at the archives found a letter from the widow of Jack Armstrong to Lincoln. The relationship between Lincoln and the Armstrong family is infamous. Long before entering politics, Lincoln had wrestled Armstrong in New Salem. Armstrong was stockier and more muscular, and historians are divided on who won, but Lincoln proved himself a courageous and skilled wrestler, and the two became fast friends after the match. Years later, Lincoln defended Armstrong’s son William in a murder trial, winning acquittal after undercutting the testimony of a witness who said that he’d seen the killing by the light of a full moon. Lincoln gave the jury an almanac showing that there had been no moon out that night. William Armstrong joined the Union army, but fell ill, and so his mother Hannah wrote to the president, asking that her son be discharged. Lincoln wrote back, telling Hannah Armstrong that he had discharged her son. That letter is at Brown University. But Hannah Armstrong’s letter to Lincoln, asking that her son be released from duty, was only recently found at the National Archives by researchers for the papers project.

The cuts come after the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum recently confirmed that it is ending a longstanding partnership with University of Illinois Springfield, which is the official employer of all five of the project’s current researchers. Money from federal grants that helped pay salaries flowed from the ALPLM’s private foundation to the university, but that arrangement will be terminated on June 30 (“Divorce court,” May 25, 2017).  Sources say that the three researchers based in Springfield will remain on the job but will become ALPLM employees as opposed to university employees.

Lowe has expressed frustration at the project's failure to publish papers unrelated to Lincoln's legal career. While Lincoln's legal papers have been published both online and in book form, the project has published few papers that don't relate to Lincoln's career as a lawyer. During Stowell's civil service commission hearing, Lowe, who took the top job at the ALPLM last summer, testified that he felt the project wasn't properly managed.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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