I worked on the Lincoln Legal Papers project for 13 years, mostly under the direction of Dr. Cullom Davis, a history professor at Sangamon State University/University of Illinois-Springfield. A dynamic fundraiser, Cullom put together a first-rate staff, which combed 85 Illinois counties, visited repositories across the country, and sent thousands of research letters to various institutions in the U.S. and abroad.
At the time, 1985, some told us we were wasting time and money because everything had been found, copied, and filed in the Illinois State Historical Library. However, the results were staggering. The Legals project discovered 97,000 documents pertaining to over 400 cases by Lincoln and his partners. The documentation proved Lincoln was no backwoods pettifogger, but a lawyer as knowledgeable of the law as any of the better eastern lawyers. He proved this again as president.
Dr. Daniel Stowell became director in 2000 and oversaw the publication of three DVD-ROMs in that year containing all the documents. A four-volume edition interpreting selected cases was published in 2008. Meanwhile, in 2001, the project expanded into The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, which sought to discover all documents and letters sent to Lincoln, and new non-legal Lincoln documents and letters. Why waste time and money on this expansion? After all, Roy Basler had published The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, eight volumes and supplements, in the 1950s. However, Basler’s scope did not include the “incoming” material – documents and letters sent to Lincoln. The difference in scope between Basler and Stowell is significant. For professional historians and the public, it’s all there in one multivolume source – paper and electronic. It broadens the base of access to our greatest president, and allows historians to gain a more clear perspective of Lincoln’s relations with both pre-presidential and presidential contemporaries.
Stowell believes the expanded project will collect 200,000 documents, mouth-watering fodder for all. However, there are still 75,000 documents remaining in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to examine. The problem is the search and the scope of the project may be jeopardized by lack of funding. A five-year $1.4 million charitable grant has been depleted, and funding through the Illinois General Assembly halved. The project has an annual $775,000 budget, which is not outrageous considering the importance of bringing everything known about Lincoln and his world to this and future generations.
It is imperative Congress act to fund completion of Stowell’s first-rate work. If Congress can appropriate $223 million for a bridge to nowhere, it is beyond comprehension that it can’t find a funding bridge so this significant project doesn’t careen into the waters. Hopefully, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, the second most powerful Senator, student of Lincoln, and resident of the 16th president’s hometown, can meet the challenge of funding this monumental project to completion. As Stowell told the Washington Post: “We’re building a new Lincoln Memorial. We’re building it not out of granite and marble, we’re building it out of the words of Abraham Lincoln and all of his contemporaries.” Indeed they are. Don’t let this project become tongue-tied. People in a country need to embrace their history to remain a nation.