Connecticut History Buff Tells Abe Lincoln’s Story Piece By Piece
By BRITTANY LYTE
AP Feature Exchange
GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) _ Lewis E. Lehrman discovered President Abraham Lincoln’s great Peoria speech as an undergraduate at Yale.
The 17,000-word anti-slavery sermon was delivered by Lincoln outside the courthouse in Peoria, Illinois in 1854. Hundreds of thousands of farmers, artisans and other working class people stood three hours and ten minutes to hear it.
“I was knocked out,” said Lehrman, a Greenwich resident, now 75. “The speech is such a brilliant tour de force. It completely suffused my subconsciousness and preoccupied me for days after reading and I was certain that a book needed to be written about this.”
It would take 50 years, but Lehrman would to do just that. Along the way he would become a managing director of Morgan Stanley & Co., establish an investment banking firm, run for governor of New York and become father to five children.
Throughout these and many other pursuits, Lincoln remained a guiding constant.
Lehrman’s “Lincoln At Peoria,” was published to wide acclaim in 2008. Subtitled, “The Turning Point,” if focuses on the true start of Lincoln’s career as an anti-slavery politician, a cause that would continue and grow in him through his death and the end of the Civil War in 1865.
“This is a demanding story,” said Lehrman, co-founder of the Gilder Lehrman Institute to promote the study of American history. A major resource for historians and educators, the institute includes an archive of more than 60,000 original historical documents.
In the years since the publication of “Peoria,” however, Lehrman came to realize not everyone wanted to delve so intensely into Lincoln-era history. What his friends said they wanted was a book containing the basic, most essential Lincoln stories from his birth until his death. Something a little less daunting.
Lehrman took that advice to heart. This summer he published “Lincoln `by littles,”’ a collection of short essays that tell the story of Lincoln’s life.
The title makes use of a unique Lincolnism. “By littles” was an expression often used by the 16th president to describe things done in increments, such as his own education. Lincoln, who accumulated just 12 months of formal education, extended over several years, has said he went to school “by littles.”
“That was a phrase that only Mr. Lincoln has used in all of the American biographies and speeches I have ever read,” Lehrman said. “Thank goodness it occurred to me to call the book `Lincoln “by littles”` because it’s a compilation of all of these little essays about Lincoln.”
The essays, some originally published in the pages of this newspaper, can be read over periods of 15 to 30 minutes, which Lehrman said makes them ideal for reading before bed.
Lehrman, who lives with his wife, Louise, and three horses in the backcountry, discovered Lincoln as a schoolboy in central Pennsylvania. One of his grade school teachers often took students on excursions to the battlefield at Gettysburg, just a half-hour drive from the school. It was the late 1940s, and at that time you could still find arrowheads and bullets on the battlefield. Those hands-on lessons at Gettysburg roused in Lehrman a lifelong interest in Lincoln.
“I think Mr. Lincoln is the very best example by which to teach American history,” Lehrman said. “Here is a man who had fewer than 12 months of formal education, born absolutely dirt poor, grew up literally on the frontier with bears and panthers in the deep woods of Spencer County, Ind., which was the edge of the frontier in 1818, and out of nothing in terms of inheritance and education, he taught himself to be a surveyor, he taught himself to be a lawyer — he didn’t go to law school. No Yale law school or Harvard law school for him. He studied the books on his own and then took the test before the Supreme Court of Illinois and was known to be one of the five most successful lawyers of Illinois. And the rest is history, as one says.”
Lehrman, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2005 for his contributions to the study of American history, said Lincoln’s work ethic has been a lifelong source of inspiration.
“All through school my children were interested in getting good grades,” he said, “and I would tell them the story of Mr. Lincoln who was giving advice to a man who had not been successful in getting into college, and Mr. Lincoln’s advice was, `Work, work, work is the main thing.’
“So whenever the kids wanted advice from me about their homework or grades, I told them I’m not interested in whether you get an A or a B, just as long as you get a one in effort because Mr. Lincoln said, `work, work, work!’
“It’s one of those sharp truths which are boring to young people because they think there’s got to be an easier way.”
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