“Everybody’s History: Indiana’s Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President’s Past”

In his book Everybody’s History, Keith Erekson presents the Lincoln Inquiry, a central project of the Southwestern Indiana, almost as a case study for why the view of public history practice today needs to be expanded, specifically regarding social networks and their functions.[1] We have already seen some of the different functions that social networks offer in public historical practice just in the short time we have been meeting as a class. Our partnership this semester with the Patapsco Heritage Greenway has shown us that collaboration with others outside of your own group or organization is often a part of the process. The social network for the project extends from Explore Baltimore to the Patapsco Heritage Greenway, our class, and the various sites we will be working on. Within our own network of the class, we can collaborate with one another on our own individual sites if we find something that may be of relevance to one of our classmates. Collaboration can happen on any of these levels in public history.

The Lincoln Inquiry engaged in a great deal of collaboration, both within and without the Southwestern. Early on, Lincoln biographers sent letters to Iglehart asking what research the Southwestern had in order to supplement their manuscripts.[2] This form of collaboration with the more academic side of Lincoln history continued as the Southwestern published articles that were later referenced by biographers.[3] Within the organization, they relied on a collective approach to both the research and writing elements of documenting Indiana’s pioneer history.[4] While a paper may have only had one author, the input and information gathered from and by the various members was an important element in the process. Beyond that, without the collaborative efforts to gain oral history from Lincoln’s rapidly disappearing contemporaries, the irreplaceable firsthand accounts of Lincoln’s 14 years in Indiana would have been lost.[5] Collaboration within the Southwestern was all aimed at one goal: to place Lincoln in the context of the pioneer frontier he had spent 14 years living in.

The collaborative nature of the Southwestern extended beyond what is traditionally thought of as the historical sphere and ventured into the world of politics. This is perhaps most clearly shown in Chapter 5 in relation to the campaign for a memorial at Nancy Hank Lincoln’s gravesite. Bess Ehrman, President of the Southwestern at the time, quickly realized that while 10 members had been given a place amongst the other organizers, very little of the decision-making process would occur in their hands.[6]  Iglehart’s belief in a conspiracy aside, this project showcases the difficulties that can be had when the social network of public history involves groups with very differing agendas. The Indiana state government wished to clean up their image after the scandal involving the KKK’s involvement in their government. The Lincoln Inquiry wished to partly have the site reopened after Richard Liber had closed it to most functions. Erekson talks about how the state government created a schematic narrative and how their power can shape the historical practice we do today. The state wanted to improve their reputation and used Nancy Hank Lincoln’s memorial as a tribute to the mother of the Great Emancipator rather than the Southwestern’s desire to place her in the frontier alongside her son.[7]


[1] Keith A. Erekson, Everybody’s History: Indiana’s Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President’s Past (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 6.

[2] Ibid., 38–42.

[3] Erekson, Everybody’s History: Indiana’s Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President’s Past.

[4] Ibid., 92.

[5] Ibid., 64–66.

[6] Ibid., 122.

[7] Ibid., 132.

Slightly edited from Source: “Everybody’s History: Indiana’s Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President’s Past” by Bridget Hurley

Does it need to be Everybody’s History?

Keith Erickson’s book, Everybody’s History, examines the work of the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society and their significant contribution to the study of southern Indiana pioneer life and Abraham Lincoln’s early life in southern Indiana through the context of that pioneer life. Though comprised of very few academic historians, the SIHS was able to create a more comprehensive historical view of southern Indiana life during the time that Lincoln lived there by including certain pieces of evidence that had previously been ignored, discounted, or overlooked. With this more comprehensive approach, the members of the SIHS were able to cast light on a period of Lincoln’s life that had long been ignored by the multitude of Lincoln biographers and demonstrate the importance of his time in Indiana on his political life in particular. Their work also attempted to changed the national perception of the people of southern Indiana as heathens and portray the importance of those people to the overall story of the United States and its “pioneering spirit.”

I think this book illustrates quite well some of the same problems that public historians have had to face in the recent past. Their struggle for legitimacy in the realm of academic history, how to present your message to the public, how do you handle the multiple entities that will have an opinion about your product and the effect that has on your work and the public’s perception of that work are all issues that are dealt with even today. One of the great ideas that this book illustrates is just how engaged the public at large can get when it is directly involved in the process of preserving history, whether that be through writing, researching, or just engaging with the end product, as well as what it can mean to that community.

I think this book raises several questions that we as public historians have to address. First and foremost, just how “public” do we allow a project to get? At some point in any project the public has to be included or you run the risk of creating a product that is incomplete, uninteresting, deemed incorrect, or even offensive. Even though the subject matter being studied by the SIHS was of a very broad nature, and without its large membership it would definitely have been a much more difficult task, but with 500 members over the lifespan of the SIHS and averaging 200 active members at any one time, it seems as though the project was extremely difficult to manage (Erickson, 19, 23). Not to mention the many instances of infighting that occurred between the various levels of leadership for the direction and message of the program. Erickson even notes the size of the project as one of the reasons why their group failed in the long run (158). Yes the Lincoln Inquiry came up with some very good results over time, but in my opinion when it came to developing a tangible product for public consumption their message was all over the place much like their membership. I also think that at some point the members of the SIHS became so obsessed with the idea of trying to correct the national misconceptions of the people of that area that, especially after the events surrounding the proposed memorial to Nancy Lincoln, that they lost focus of what the SIHS was originally trying to accomplish (133).

The second question I have stems from Erickson’s claim that the SHIS “failed to produce a lasting synthesis” in part because it failed to maintain a certain level of enthusiasm for their product (159). While I am not in disagreement with his assessment the question becomes how do you prevent any one project from becoming uninteresting to the public and maintain that high level of public enthusiasm, especially in such a small community such as southern Indiana. As public historians we are not attempting to produce a written final product, but are trying to “immerse an audience within a synchronized experience of the past (152)” as Erickson puts it, more often than not through some type of visual exhibit. At a time when advertisers have managed to reduce people’s attention spans to 15 seconds or less, how do you maintain any level of public interest over any length of time? At a time when money to create and maintain exhibits is becoming increasingly more scarce, how do you keep your product interesting enough for the public to maintain any sort of long lasting interest in it? In smaller areas like that of southern Indiana, how do you keep a much smaller local population “enthusiastic” about your work when they’ve probably been there two or three times and the exhibit has been the same each time? Not every one in our class will immediately find a job with the Smithsonian where the budgets are much higher and changing exhibits is the norm.

Source: Does it need to be Everybody’s History? by Alan Gibson

Historic Preservation and Heritage History

In looking for the roots of preservation, my first question is “preserving what?” Are we talking about artifacts and buildings or belief systems, ideas and, conscious or unconscious prejudices? For me, restored buildings, villages, and museums are less interesting than either the motives of the people who created them or the expectations on their impact on visitors.

For example, James Isenberg’s work in Kentucky was designed to attract white middle and upper-middle class tourists—a growing group taking advantage of train and automobile travel to create a new kind of tourist industry that wasn’t limited to the elites. These visitors were then exposed to exhibits and pageants linking a story of progress to the efforts of Americans of European descent (like themselves) to tame the wilderness.

While the Kentucky Memorial Association was looking for financial benefits, other preservation sites such as Mt. Vernon had loftier goals. For the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Mount Vernon was a shrine where they believed visitors would be so influenced by their surroundings that the visit would be a life-changing event instilling the patriotism and high-mindedness of Washington and other heroes of the American Revolution.

The work at Mount Vernon is also an example of how the female dominance of the field of commemoration/preservation was linked to the idea of “Republican Motherhood” with its obligation to exercise moral authority and instill appropriate values in the young. This position of dominance was lost outside the South as the field of historic preservation was professionalized to replace emphasis on values with scientific method and historical accuracy, and to replace female leadership with academically-trained men. (Note: Mount Vernon is one of the few female-led organizations that survived.)

The situation in the South was very different. With approximately 13 percent of white Southern men killed in the war, white women of all classes were involved in grieving for/memorializing the dead by decorating grave sites and sponsoring the installation of memorial statuary. At the same time, they had to deal with the survivors, some wounded, many shell-shocked, and almost all stunned and confused about how to live in a world where they had lost so much: property, money and their status in the community.   It’s not hard to see why antebellum values came to be seen as the pinnacle of civilization, and why so many Southern whites continued to claim the rightness of the Confederate cause.

By the 1890s, Southern women were leading the effort to defend the Confederate ideology by actively disseminating a new history that portrayed Southern whites as victims whose righteous cause had been overpowered by Northern industrial might. Again, what were they preserving? Slavery as a benevolent institution populated by happy slaves? A doctrine of white supremacy based on the need to maintain order in a rapidly changing society?

I was surprised to find that this Lost Cause ideology changed and expanded to include other “threats” to the restoration of an antebellum Southern culture. The emergence of the New South with its industrial base of mills, factories and mines terrified many Southern whites who were still trying to cling to their antebellum elite status. The Lost Cause was also updated to include the appropriateness of obedience/deference from an angry working class with too many immigrants and even some labor unionists.

Still, the most surprising thing to me was how successful these Southern “activists” were in achieving their goals. This alternative history was accepted throughout the North and facilitated the sectional healing process. More importantly, the needs/rights of the freed slaves and the new black citizenry were basically ignored. Well into the 1920s, white supremacy and segregation were accepted as normal in many parts of the country, and the Klu Klux Klan retained its power in the South and expanded into the Midwest.

Sadly, the “losers” are still writing the history, and the Lost Cause ideology is still alive. The Civil War is still called The War of Northern Aggression in many Southern and border states. The Klu Klux Klan is still marching—only this time they don’t think they need hoods. While preservationists cannot be blamed for the current situation, I think it is fair to think that existence of supposedly historic heritage sites that promote ideas that have no factual basis contribute to the continued social problems.

Post written by Sheila Lambowitz

Gender Bias in Preservation

The readings this week were mostly about the foundations of public history in gendered spaces. Last class, Dr. Meringolo said she thought public historians spent too long establishing themselves as true historians so they forgot to bring the public along. Would public history have made more progress if it was not such a gendered field? Women dominated this field until the Progressive Era; feminine preservation focused more on values and morality central in their community. But the masculine view of preservation became more material, focusing on architecture and craftsmanship. To legitimize their role in preservation, men had to professionalize the field, pushing women out of leading roles. “Charles B. Hosmer, Jr. pictured these Virginians as socialites and amateurs who failed to muster adequate energies and expertise in their preservation work. Karal Ann Marling, on the other hand, saw the declining status, ancestral worship, and feminine domesticity of these Virginians as the fuel which ignited the engine of preservation” (Lindgren, “Virginia Needs Living Heroes” 10). Women were instrumental in starting the field, and preservation may not exist without their efforts. The gender issues of the time created a divide in the field, men and women could not cross gender lines to unite the field.

The female dominated preservation made the community a priority, but it was in no way an inclusive community. The elite women controlled the story that was told, mostly focusing on American Exceptionalism and patriotism, saving those locations of our founding fathers. These women used their place as the guardians of morality to enter the public sphere of preservation and critique the male world, the developing individualism, and capitalism. They had little interest in creating an accurate historical narrative, but advocated for traditionalism. Needing to professionalize the field to legitimatize their presence in it, the men pursue the opposite perspective, totally focusing on accurate history and the material significance and forgetting to include the narrative that is interesting to the public. As preservation becomes professional it loses a key part of the field, and it takes almost fifty years to establish the common ground “between his architectural focus and her community identity, or between his professionalism and her personalism” (Lindgren, “A New Departure in Historic, Patriotic Work” 60). Women needed to have a justified reason to enter the public sphere for preservation, when they no longer had a reason to be leader in the field, they were pushed out. If men had been able to include women in their effort to professionalize preservation then they may have been able to bring the public along through the process, instead to starting over in gaining trust in the community. Gender lines have had a huge impact in the process of developing public history.

The women of Virginia were the most prevalent in preservation work, establishing the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) and the Confederate Museum. Their efforts were centered on maintaining Virginia traditionalism. The historic buildings became “a means to uplift society, [to] …. teach virtue, refinement, and patriotism” (Lindgren, “Virginia Needs Living Heroes” 11). These women clearly went into preservation with a bias to combat the political climate of the day. Women wanted to condemn the New South as it embraced the ideals of the North after the war, and show they still maintained the moral high ground. But the idea that the South and especially Virginia had a correct way of life marginalized so many other people. Southern elite women wanted to return to a sense of normalcy, to still maintain their positions of power. While they couldn’t keep power politically, they could keep it socially. This platform of preservation gave them a way to justify maintaining a status quo in the future with Jim Crow and segregation. These women used their power over preservation to preserve the story that benefitted their position, but most shocking was how women changed the memory of the Civil War. The Confederate Memorial Literary Association (CMLA) created the Confederate Museum to control the story of the Confederacy. I think the CMLA’s ability to change the public view of the Civil War parallels our discussion of the Enola Gay, those with the loudest voice control memory. The veterans controlled the information that was allowed to be presented about the bomb, while the Confederate women controlled the memory of the causes of the Civil War. The museum sought to justify the southern causes for war. “Northern writers of history textbooks, regarding the museum women as ‘ever-energetic fighter[s] for truth,’ began turning to them as experts on Confederate history”(Hillyer, 59). The southern women changed the way the Civil War is taught in schools, allowing them to justify segregation through the 1960s. The Confederate women were allowed to change the memory of the Civil War because the North stayed silent on the issue of slavery. By being silent in the Libby Prison Museum, they accepted the Confederate version of events. “Relics and Reconstruction” makes the claim that the Museum helped to bring about reconciliation between the two sides of the war. But has this change in public memory created more problems for the future? Was it necessary to change the memory of the Civil War in order for the two sides to reconcile? In changing public memory have we committed a greater error in stalling the progress of equality? The change in public memory may have done more harm than good. The change in memory to promote traditionalism and the gender shift in preservation may have slowed the progress of equality and preservation.

How does gender operate in the readings and how does it affect preservation?

Source: Gender Bias in Preservation by Kayla Piechowiak