Lincoln Scholar Reflects a Life of Study on 16th President

Michael Burlingame Shares Research at Wassong Memorial Lecture

​Hartford, Conn. – Michael Burlingame, May Buckley Sadowski Professor of History Emeritus at Connecticut College and a prominent Abraham Lincoln scholar, delivered the Wassong Memorial Lecture at Trinity College to a sizeable audience, which included several Civil War scholars.  This event capped a series of Lincoln-related events on campus to mark the bicentennial of the late President’s birth - the discussion on the man still very much alive.  Burlingame, who has spent the majority of his life researching the many different facets of Lincoln, gave the crowd plenty to think about.

"Lincoln liked to tell off-color stories," Burlingame told the crowd gathered in McCook Auditorium before sharing one of several low-brow stories that Lincoln liked to tell, which Burlingame was able to share thanks to his in-depth research on the subject.  The specific joke shared was more appropriate by today’s standards, but revealed a side of Lincoln that the public didn’t know.

A Princeton University graduate, Burlingame studied under David Herbert Donald, an esteemed United States historian and eminent Lincolnian.  It was from his time there, in combination with his years living in Washington, D.C., that Burlingame was motivated to learn more about Lincoln.  After earning his Ph.D at Johns Hopkins University, Burlingame devoted his professional life to the study of Lincoln, authoring a book on Lincoln’s inner life and editing eleven volumes of Lincoln-related primary source material before finishing the comprehensive Abraham Lincoln: A Life, a two-volume, nine-pound opus that Burlingame jokingly compared to delivering a baby.   

Burlingame uncovered some significant truths about the immortal political figure, after having discovered unpublished archival materials that no other Lincoln scholar had ever examined for a similar purpose.  Burlingame, who credited the many librarians and curators who helped point him in the right direction, shared some of the particularly interesting findings.

“He had a bit of a cruel edge before the age of 40,” Burlingame divulged, adding that Lincoln was “a low road politician” during that time.  Burlingame said that Lincoln, as a member of the Whig party, would often write anonymous newspaper articles sarcastically ridiculing Democrats in keeping with the frontier politics of the time. He was a fierce debater, capable of occasionally reducing Democratic opponents to tears on the campaign trail.

The turning point in Lincoln’s life, Burlingame said, came when he retired from public life between 1849 and 1854, a significant period of personal growth that Burlingame likens to a mid-life crisis.  Lincoln emerged from this period, Burlingame said, with a rare level of psychological maturity that enabled him to govern with wisdom and temperance, willing to sacrifice personal interests for the greater, national good, as when he appointed some of his own outspoken political rivals to his cabinet.

The reason and good judgment Lincoln exercised as president were qualities lacking in his home life, according to Burlingame, who remains a steadfast critic of Lincoln’s First Lady. While expressing sympathy for Mary Todd Lincoln’s unhappy upbringing,   Burlingame contends that she was a corrupt and mentally unbalanced woman who abused her husband physically.  He began digging for evidence of trouble in their marriage after reading the unpublished notes of Lincoln’s private secretary and early biographer, John Nicolay.  Nicolay interviewed Orville Browning, a senator from Illinois and close friend of the Lincoln family, who revealed Lincoln’s fear that Mary Todd would someday do something to humiliate him publicly.  Burlingame went on to find additional “overwhelming” evidence that Lincoln’s wife was corrupt, that she took money from those seeking presidential pardons, accepted bribes and padded payrolls and expense accounts during her time as First Lady, and even stole furnishings from the White House. 

 Burlingame also offered new insight to the debate over Lincoln’s views on civil rights.  He described discovering a rare 1865 eulogy of Lincoln by Frederick Douglass that Burlingame said jumped out at him because it contradicted Douglass’ later, more widely-discussed views.  In an 1876 memorial address, Douglass famously criticized Lincoln as preeminently a white man’s President, claiming that black men were merely his stepchildren.  In the earlier eulogy Burlingame found, however, Douglass said Lincoln was “emphatically, the black man’s President: the first to show any respect to their rights as men.”

Burlingame argued that Douglass’ earlier, more favorable view of Lincoln was based on a belief that Lincoln intended to bring black men full citizenship and voting rights. This belief was based primarily on Lincoln’s last public address, on April 11, 1865, in which he called for the enfranchisement of some black men in Louisiana.  Burlingame interprets this as the first step toward the vote for all adult black males. 

John Wilkes Booth, who was in the audience for Lincoln’s April 11th speech, was horrified by the prospect of black equality. According to Burlingame, this was Booth’s immediate reason for assassinating the president three days later.  And so, Burlingame concludes, Lincoln was in essence, a martyr for black rights. 

The Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture, and History was established in 1996 in loving memory of Mrs. Wassong with the support of friends, family, and her husband, Joseph. 

Joseph F. Wassong, Jr. graduated from Trinity College in 1959 with a BA in History.  He received his MA in History from Columbia University and spent his career teaching at Naugatuck Valley Community College before retiring in 1999.