The Atlantic is a monthly publication which goes to press many weeks before its appearance on the news stands. Persons who expect to speak with the celerity of a daily or weekly paper are unreasonable. Realizing the interest of the public, we add these pages of explanation a week after the text of the magazine has already gone to press.
The Atlantic began the publication of the series of articles entitled 'Lincoln the Lover' in the belief, first, that the original documents on which the series was based were genuine, and second, that they were of public and historic value. Widespread controversy followed the appearance of the first article in December, and the authenticity of the documents was questioned. The Atlantic has with its best intelligence studied each criticism as it appeared, and from the beginning has taken the view that the common object of ourselves and our critics should be, not to prove either side of ease, but to arrive at the truth regarding documents in question.
So far as the criticisms based upon the December article are concerned, we felt, and still feel, that they are clearly susceptible of two opinions. We prepared a statement which we expected to publish embodying our conviction to that effect and the reasons for it. But with the appearance of the January Atlantic two specific criticisms were launched, both concerning one letter printed in the article in that issue, which we are not able to refute. The letter in question is dated New Salem, May 9, 1834; it is addressed to John Calhoun and signed 'A. Lincoln.' The letter begins:—
Dear Friend John
if you have in your possession or can tell me where you left the Certificate of Survey of Joshua Blackburn's Claim, seems some controversy between him and Green concerning that North East quarter of Section 40—you remember?
It has been pointed out that as early as 1785 the Federal Government established a system of surveying public lands which has remained unchanged. According to this system, townships were laid out in tracts six miles by six, with sections each one mile square, making thirty-six sections in all. Where a lake, Indian Reservation, or other irregularity occurred, a township might contain less than thirty-six sections, but under no circumstances could it contain more. This evidence seems decisive unless it should be possible that some local variation might occur in the application of the system. To determine this point we went much further than the mere examination of the laws governing the survey of public lands; actual section maps were consulted showing the townships as they had been surveyed in the very region under question— Sangamon County, Illinois. From all such maps as we have been able to consult it appears that no variation occurred. Since John Calhoun was official surveyor of Sangamon County, and Lincoln was his assistant, it could only be concluded that Lincoln could not have made such a reference as that occurring in the disputed letter, to the North East quarter of Section 40.'
In the same letter occurs the sentence: 'the "Bixbys" are leaving this week for some place in Kansas.' Kansas was organized as a territory in 1854; in the twenty years previous it was an Indian land, where a few whites—missionaries, traders, and land squatters —had established themselves. The name 'Kansas' during this time seems to have been restricted to the Kansas River. A reference to 'some place in Kansas,' therefore, implying a coherent territory to which a name had been given, seems a serious flaw in a letter dated 1834.
We have taken all possible pains to study these two questions, and have consumed many days in doing so, but the only conclusion which we are able to reach is that the letter in which these two references occur does not seem to be supported by the facts. We should be grateful for advice from any quarter regarding these or other points at issue. Under the circumstances, the Atlantic will of course not proceed with its plan to publish the whole collection in book form without being able to substantiate it. We are guided in this decision by what appear to be irrefutable facts. To other criticisms which have been made there are answers.
The same statement, for example, which advanced the two points just cited contained these words: 'In the undated diary entry, written presumably in 1833 or 1834, Matilda Cameron remarks, "Marthy Calhone teched Ann sum new patern of kroshay and she is going to tech me." Martha Calhoun, sixth child of John Calhoun, was born January 9, 1848, about nine years after the diary entry.'
True enough, but, a fact overlooked by our critics, John Calhoun also had a sister Martha, to whom, so far as we are able to see, the reference naturally applies.
The same critics make this statement, which can be answered partially, but we admit not effectually: 'In a letter purporting to be from Ann Rutledge a reference to Spencer's copy book is included, whereas Spencer's first publication on penmanship was made thirteen years after the death of Ann Rutledge.' Spencer was born in 1800 and began teaching penmanship at the age of fifteen. In 1833, when the letter in question would have been written, he had been teaching penmanship eighteen years. It seems well within possibility that he might have published, or at least printed, copy books or leaflets which have escaped notice, although the first formal Spencerian treatise appeared in 1848.
One explanation of its policy in seeking to establish the authenticity of the documents the Atlantic would like to make. From the beginning we felt that a forgery a generation or two ago was altogether unlikely. We accordingly sought to investigate as thoroughly as we could the age of the collection as it lay in our hands. We accepted the assurance of the chemists that the paper was old and that the ink had been on it for a long time. We next sought to learn all we could about the reputed owner a generation past, Frederick Hirth, of Emporia, Kansas. We wrote to Washington for Hirth's war record, and ascertained through the Adjutant-General's office that he had twice served as a volunteer, and had been pensioned for wounds received in action. We ascertained from William Allen White, of Emporia, that Hirth had been a well-known and respected citizen there, and a prominent Mason until his death in 1907. We endeavored to find out whether Hirth had ever spoken of possessing Lincoln letters. In this connection several letters which we have in our files are of interest.
A letter written to the publishers from Emporia by Mrs. Howard Dunlap contains the following words: 'I know of Mr. Frederick Hirth. He was a very old settler here. I know he had some letters that Lincoln had written that he prized very much. I saw them, but he repeatedly told his friends of them.'
A letter from Mr. C. W. Cleaver, recorder of the Knights Templar in Emporia, contains these words: —
All the Masons that lived about the time Fred Hirth was on earth have gone to their reward and none of the later date knew anything about him. I was a kid of about twenty-one or so and Fred was an old man and of very little interest to me. I knew him quite well, but was never in his home. I have a sort of nebulous recollection one night in the Temple a lot of us sitting around talking of cabbages and kings and a few other things, and in the course of the gab I have a faint recollection of hearing Abraham Lincoln talked of, and among other things Fred Hirth saying that he had a letter or letters from Lincoln, but the recollection is so faint that I could not give you a word of the conversation.
In a letter addressed to the publisher by Wayland A. Morrison, M.D., of Los Angeles, a distant cousin of Miss Minor and a nephew of Frederick Hirth's wife, are the words: —
I have only a faint recollection of Mr. Hirth having some of the material that is in your possession, being a small boy and it having made very little impression on my mind. I could not make a definite statement in this regard.
A letter to the publisher from Mrs. John Healy, the sister of Miss Minor's mother, is dated from Arkansas City. Mrs. Healy writes:—
I can speak with authority, having known Aunt Fanny (Sarah Morrison Hirth) and Uncle Fred (Frederick Hirth) intimately for years. Several years ago, while convalescing from a period of illness, I was in their home about two months, and during that time Uncle Fred and I discovered we were mutual admirers of Washington Irving, and while he was very reserved and taciturn in his attitude towards people, he grew quite voluble and confidential during our reading and discussions of Irving, and he told me about having some of Lincoln's and Ann Rutledge's love letters in his possession, and he intended leaving them to Cora - my sister - his musket to Wayland Morrison, and his rifle to me, for keepsakes. He gave me the rifle just before I came home.
Some time after his death, Aunt Fanny was in my home for three months, and during that time she mentioned several keepsakes she was going to give my sister, including a 'Packet of old letters Fred wanted her to have' and I know Aunt Fanny took them to California and gave them to my sister.
These letters seem adequate testimony to the fact of Hirth's possession of letters and 'keepsakes' which he described to his friends and to members of his family as written by or associated with Lincoln. Any reader can judge for himself of the likelihood of the committal of so complicated a forgery a full generation ago. When the first of Miss Minor's articles led to immediate criticism, we felt justified in asking for suspended judgment. This was the more true as some of the early criticisms did not seem to us of serious moment. We should like to quote from the statement previously alluded to, which we prepared for publication after studying criticisms based upon the December article: —
In general, criticism of the collection falls under three heads. The first consideration is the handwriting of the documents purporting to be Lincoln's. The Atlantic has departed from a tradition of seventy years against the use of illustrations to place before its readers reproductions of three of the Lincoln letters in Miss Minor's collection, so that some idea might be formed of the appearance of the original documents. Even so, our purpose was partly defeated, for the two Lincoln letters in the December issue were reproduced by the method of line engraving, which inevitably sharpened and altered the writing; a slight reduction in size to fit the Atlantic page was also necessary. The frontispiece of the January issue, containing Lincoln's letter which begins 'My dearly valued Ann,' is a reproduction by Photostat, and a much more accurate representation of its original. But examination which has not the original documents themselves as its immediate object cannot be final. It is for this reason that before publication the Atlantic secured Miss Minor's permission for ultimate public display of the collection.
The second type of criticism applied to the documents has concerned particular traits and characteristics of the letters as compared with known Lincoln correspondence. To illustrate criticisms of this sort, let us select some outstanding examples which have been brought to bear by a noted Lincoln scholar.
1. 'Rarely, if ever, did Lincoln write the name of the addressee in the lower left-hand corner of his letters.' Even a casual and fractional survey of Lincoln's correspondence would show three examples of this practice, which lie before us as we write: (a) Lincoln's letter to Mrs. O. H. Browning about his affair with Mary Owens, quoted in Barton, The Women Lincoln Loved, pages 205-09; (b) letter from Lincoln (original in Barrett collection) to William H. Herndon, speaking of a speech by Mr. Stephens of Georgia; (c) letter from Lincoln to a newspaper or magazine publisher, written in 1835 while Lincoln was postmaster of New Salem; reproduced in Tarbell, Early Life of Abraham Lincoln, page 189, from original in the collection of Mr. C. F. Gunther.
2. '... until the last few years of his life he habitually used a short dash instead of a period.' In the Lincoln correspondence from other sources which we have seen, dashes predominate, but dots are found. In Miss Minor's collection dots predominate, but dashes are found. It would appear that Lincoln's practice was inconsistent, and that generalization is insecure.
3. 'The salutation of the letter of July 2, 1848, - "Dear Old Friend," is totally unlike Lincoln, who rarely deviated from the formal in beginning his letters. . . .
The conclusion, "Yours forever," is as foreign as the salutation.' Part of the peculiar value of Miss Minor's collection is its intimacy, in which it differs from other correspondence of Lincoln. This difference cannot with fairness be used a priori against the collection. Curiously enough, however, a letter is before us containing an intimate salutation and a form of signature identical with that criticized as unlike Lincoln. A letter to be found on page 31 of Uncollected Letters of Abraham Lincoln, by Gilbert A. Tracy, is addressed to Richard S. Thomas. It begins 'Friend Richard' and concludes 'yours forever.'
The third type of criticism is historical. An elaborate argument is advanced that Calhoun could not have visited Gentryville at a time compatible with the statement in Lincoln's letter dated July 22, 1848, because court records establish his presence in Springfield. But the argument is based on the premise that Calhoun must have visited Gentryville on a given date, whereas Lincoln mentions no date. He simply writes, 'Jed was here and called on me about a month ago. he told me of your trip to Gentryville...' The visit may have taken place at any time, and bears no necessary relation to the date of Jed's visit.
The existence of Sarah ('Sally') Calhoun, daughter of John Calhoun, to whom several of the Lincoln letters are addressed, has been called in question. Sally Calhoun's memorandum is one of the prominent documents in Miss Minor's collection. Doubt of her reality is based on the absence of her name from the list of John Calhoun's children as given in John Carroll Power's History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois. But consultation of this volume reveals that this very list of John Calhoun's children contains a conspicuous error. Two of his children are reported as having been born three months apart. This error throws doubt on the infallibility of the list. That one of the daughters of John Calhoun may have been called Sarah, although not so baptized, is a possibility which every reader will recognize, and is strengthened by the fact that their mother's name was Sarah. As affirmative evidence of the existence of Sally Calhoun we have not only her memorandum, but two letters signed by her, and a letter written by Miss Minor's own grandmother, Margaret Morrison, in which she mentions Sally Calhoun by name and speaks of receiving from her part of the Lincoln collection under discussion. (On the other hand, it is fair to mention the supplementary evidence advanced by our critics in the form of a letter written by Mrs. Adele P. McCord, only surviving granddaughter of John Calhoun. Mrs. McCord says that she does not recall that any of her aunts was ever called 'Sally.')
Obviously, every criticism advanced against the documents cannot be individually answered by the Atlantic. We think we have shown that typical criticisms advanced hitherto are fully open to rejoinder.
Finally, we should like to recur to the circumstances under which the Minor Collection was published. At our request, Minor and her mother, Mrs. DeBoyer came on from California to discuss the material. They remained in Boston several days, and repeated conferences were held with members of the firm of Little Brown and Company, prospective publishers of the book, and with six members of the Atlantic staff. The contract made based its considerable returns upon the acceptance by the public generally of the material published in book form. Miss Minor courted the fullest publicity for her material, and the eleven weeks preceding publication letters were shown to chemists, to biographers, and to a number of individuals whose judgment was deemed of value.
It is a pertinent fact that among all the people who saw the original books and letters, only one person, a scholar of long experience, expressed doubt, and that doubt was based upon the possibility which he regarded as only a possibility of material having been fabricated some time before 1900.
To us the letters seemed to furnish a very interesting explanation of the unexplained change which came over Lincoln's character in the formative years, and we think that any person whose prejudice does not blind his judgment will find in this material—particularly in the diary of Mat Cameron—evidence that if it is fabricated, an artist's hand has been at work.
For the criticism of scholars and students no matter how unfavorable, we are not ungrateful, for the truth in this matter is a source of deep interest. We do feel that multifarious criticism by persons quite ignorant of the merits of the controversy proves once again how inequitably sense and intelligence are distributed in this world.