Friday, June 12, 2009

Putting Lincoln On The Couch, with Dr. Burlingame

Dr. Burlingame, Renowned Historian and New UIS Lincoln Studies Chair, Tries to Crack Abe’s Noggin.

In 1997, Michael Burlingame boldly declared that experts “have yet to analyze fully the psychological origins of Lincoln’s hatred of slavery, his aversion to women, his anger and cruelty, his role as a father figure,” among other quirks.

He proposed in that first book, “The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln,” that the solution was a healthy dose of psychohistory.

“It’s an attempt to address some questions about the past that otherwise would be very difficult to answer, unless you pay attention to unconscious forces,” Burlingame, 67, says.

A psychohistorian, Burlingame intends to bring a unique look at history when he takes the post of the Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield this fall.

He’ll be tapping into Carl Jung and Freud to pick apart history, while teaching a handful of UIS students a course in psychohistory and the American presidency at the historic Iles House in Springfield.

“We will be looking at people like Jefferson and Lyndon Johnson, really studying how their personal experiences affected their ideology and their behaviors,” Burlingame says.

Burlingame was hooked on Lincoln as an undergraduate at Princeton, under the auspice of noted historian David Herbert Donald. He would go on to earn his doctorate from the same historian from John Hopkins University in 1971.

Since then, he’s written three books on Lincoln, the most recent being 2008’s “Abraham Lincoln: A Life,” a two-volume series which garnered critical praise. He’s also racked up an extensive list of accolades, and retired from Connecticut College after a 30-year career there.

The 16th president earns a special place on the Burlingame psychologist couch.

For example, one enigma Burlingame finds is abhorrence to slavery, at a time when the average Illinoisan may not be inclined to abolition. Lincoln would not likely harbor those views from his native, slave state of Kentucky, either.

Given that history, what provoked Lincoln to protest a state proclamation against abolitionist groups in 1837 and write that slavery was “founded on both injustice and bad policy” (while only one other lawmaker signed his protest)? Or inspired him to argue in 1854 in Peoria against the Kansas-Nebraska Act with a lengthy speech about the moral ills of slavery, and re-enter the public arena? Burlingame recounts how Lincoln’s relationship with his father may have fostered abolitionist feelings.

“His father treated him like a slave. He rented him out to neighbors, so Lincoln as an adolescent would go out and spend days on end performing really back breaking farm chores like chopping down trees, picking up stumps, building fences and all that kind of hard work,” he says.

It wasn’t uncommon for Lincoln to be pulled from his lessons to work on a chore for a neighbor. Those earnings became the property of the parent, and Lincoln’s father didn’t hesitate to use his son’s labor. For a boy who loved to learn, Burlingame says, this was a trigger.

“Unconsciously he identified himself with the slaves and identified his father with slave holders, otherwise it’s hard to understand why Lincoln despised slavery from early on,” he says.

Lincoln hated working a hard day’s work without honest pay, and that became the stinging point for his antislavery rhetoric. He didn’t use an angle of civil liberties, freedom of speech, press or assembly when trying to argue abolition. “Instead, he talks about how it’s an outrage that somebody goes out and works in the hot sun all day, and somebody else derives the profits,” Burlingame says.

That Lincoln suffered from clinical depression and lost a great love in his earlier years (Ann Rutledge), was considered bunk until recently. James G. Randall, the distinguished Lincoln historian and professor at the University of Illinois two generations ago, discredited a large portion of William Herndon’s personal notes, silencing a wealth of the evidence in the process.

“That set Lincoln Scholarship back about 50 years and the Herndon treasure trove seem like a nuclear waste dump,” Burlingame says.

It was later revealed that much of this was influenced by Randall’s wife, who had a very high opinion of Mary Todd Lincoln and sought to purge Ann Rutledge from history books. In the process of making “The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln,” Burlingame, whose mentor at Princeton was a protégé of Randall, approached the archives of the president’s law partner with caution.

“I thought I should look at it, to say I just took a glance at it, and I found it quite persuasive,” he says. “There were so many people who testified and they all sounded reasonable to me.”

Now that his schedule of bicentennial speeches and book touring is winding down, he anticipates settling into his UIS post and getting down to a new book. Tentatively titled “Words of Lincoln reported by Contemporary Newspapers,” he hopes to collect reporter’s stories on the president.

“Sometimes it’s a direct quotation and sometimes it’s an indirect quotation, but those are valuable contributions to the stock of information about Lincoln,” Burlingame says.

He also intends to hunt down nearly 200 anonymous letters written to the Sangamon Journal, which he believes Lincoln wrote, along with primary source material from White House secretaries. Some of the data won’t be to be tremendously difficult to find, considering his living arrangements across the street from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, in an 1856 building where Lincoln may have been at some point.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Springfield doing research, and people have been extremely kind and hospitable,” he says. “I have a pretty big circle of friends, and I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time with them.”

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