May 17 2009

Review: Mr. Lincoln’s Book

Published by at 12:39 pm under review

lincoln book

Mr. Lincoln’s Book

What does it mean to be the author of a book? Sometimes it means sitting down for extended periods at keyboard (or typewriter, or pen and paper) to say what has to be said. Sometimes – you can take this as the norm, though not the absolute, for celebrity books – it means submitting to a few longish interviews with a writer, who then crafts the book. And there are all sorts of other variations, and descriptions of authorship that run along a sliding scale.

David Leroy of Boise has out a new book provocatively called Mr. Lincoln’s Book (Oak Knoll Press/Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, New Castle DE 2009, provocative because Abraham Lincoln usually is assumed not to have written a book. (A post-presidential memoir, which he seems to have contemplated, by this expert wordsmith would have been something to savor.) However, Leroy here has latched on to something, a unjustly obscure piece of Lincoln’s story, that prompts whole series of lines of thought, and ought to get some attention from historians professional and amateur alike.

Leroy’s name will sound familiar to historians of recent Idaho politics, because he has periodically been part of it. He was a fast-riser for a while in Idaho politics, Ada County prosecutor, state attorney general and lieutenant governor; his string snapped in 1986 when he lost a race for governor, narrowly, to Cecil Andrus. In 1994 he also lost a run for the U.S. House, and in more recent years he has been around but not especially visible in Idaho politics.

Those who know him, though, also know him as a fanatic on history, mainly on two threads, early Idaho history and Abraham Lincoln, the link being Lincoln’s designation of Idaho (1863) as a distinct territory.

Leroy’s subject here goes back just a few years before that, running chiefly from the debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign, into Lincoln’s run for president in 1860. Those two events are connected. The little-known Lincoln actually won the popular vote in the contest with Douglas – a major national figure through the 1850s – even though he decisively lost in the state legislature, where senators then were chosen. But the battle in one state might not have been enough to give Lincoln national cachet but for the legendary series of debates between the two candidates. And those debates, in turn, might never have gotten much national attention but for a scrapbook of newspaper and other reports of the debates which Lincoln personally compiled and lightly edited. It went to a book printer, and wound up selling commercially, and selling very well. Sales estimates varied widely; Leroy figured them at somewhere around 50,000, which would make it one of the first big political bestsellers in the country. And those sales happened during the supercharged presidential election season of 1860, when the leading candidates were none other than Lincoln and Douglas.

There’s a temptation, in reading through the story, to suggest that Lincoln was the first presidential candidate (as Barack Obama is the most recent) to make specific effective use of a relatively new media technology in a presidential campaign. Books weren’t new, of course, but printing capacities had recently developed and expanded, and so had distribution networks – a sale of 50,000 or so books in the way Lincoln managed it probably wouldn’t have been feasible a generation earlier.

Leroy’s core thesis here is that this book was a book by Lincoln – that he was the author of it. This gets into a matter of definitions, and back to the question of what it means to “author” a book. The takeaway is that Lincoln probably best ought to be considered the “editor” of the book, because even though many of the words in it (from the debates) are his, so too are many from Douglas, and some from other writers. But Leroy has pulled together the details that show clearly the extensive effort Lincoln made personally to get the book organized, edited and into print – it was certainly his book in a meaningful sense. (That may be underscored by Douglas’ eventual protests of it.)

Leroy has done a bit more here than assemble the history behind the book (write entertainingly about it), and to make the argument for it. He also has tracked down all 42 known authenticated signed copies of the book notes that “now we will identify each of these signed Debates by its Leroy number.”

With the number of books on Lincoln up in the tens of thousands, you’d expect that not much new is left to be said. But the spins of interpretation seem endless, and surprisingly pertinent (hello, Team of Rivals). Leroy’s deep dig into this obscure angle of the Lincoln story will give you an unexpectedly large number of things to think about afterward.

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