As noted previously, the Dole Institute is hosting a Lincoln Week roster of speakers. The engagements were made by outgoing Dole director, Richard Norton Smith, and offer a fair picture of what is in store for the Lincoln Library and Museum, now that he (Smith) has taken over.
The roster of speakers – with a lonely exception - is made up of winners of the Lincoln Prize, issued annually by friends of academic entrepreneur Gabor Borritt. Douglas Wilson (1999), Allen Guelzo (2000), James McPherson (1998), and Phillip Paludan (1995), each have previously won $50,000 through Borritt's prize system. (Paludan was a last-minute replacement for non-winner Harold Holzer, who dropped from the lineup and who had earlier declined to be considered for the leadership of the Lincoln Library … thus opening an opportunity for Smith.)
Borritt is very open about his projects: "Why things change, who knows? We did our small part. We started the Lincoln Prize. That's a huge prize; it's not for Lincoln alone, but all things being equal, if you work on Lincoln you have an advantage." It gives him leverage beyond his Gettysburg Civil War Institute, and it extends his Civil War brand by awarding a Lincoln Prize to titles like The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the American; For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War; and A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865. This list (and you should read the entire list of contending titles) makes nonsense out of a mission statement that says "The Lincoln Prize at Gettysburg College shall be awarded annually by the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute for the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln, or the American Civil War soldier, or a subject relating to their era."
Finest scholarly work? But that would require research, not the recapitulation of conclusions reached in secondary sources. Oh wait a minute. We are talking about "Civil War" type scholarship. The kind exemplified by James McPherson, who sadly embodies the highest standard of Civil War scholarship.
When you consider that the bona fide but prizeless scholar Harry Jaffa issued his second-ever Lincoln title (A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War) after a near five decade interval during the period Borritt's friends were handing out prize money to each other, you get a sense of "scholarly" being defined for the Lincoln Prize in the same corrupt and nonsensical way it is used in Civil War publishing generally – where Borritt has his roots, and where every pop history frolic to hit the shelves is considered scholarship.
"Now the 49th Delaware Volunteers would receive their baptism in blood! As the enemy drew closer with whoops and random firing, Colonel Alonzo cooly checked his watch." That is what we mean by "scholarship" in Civil War history; all that is needed is a citation of Catton tacked on to make it exceptionally scholarly.
Jaffa's portrayal – to a popular audience no less – of Lincoln's wrestling with Calhoun's intellectual legacy, particularly Calhoun's self-conscious Kantianism – is so far beyond Borritt's grasp of the scholarly as to be laughable. But the laugh is not on Jaffa.
Nor is it on Michael Burlingame, who will be speaking elsewhere during Lincoln Week. In the period Borritt and company have been honoring battle books with Lincoln Prizes, Burlingame has been doing painstaking things like assembling and annotating pseudonymous newspaper articles published by Lincoln's secretaries in defense of Lincoln's policies. Might that be a little bit fresh? A little bit important? And reissuing improved, more thoroughly annotated editions of John Hay's diary – a basic piece of scholarly drudgework long needed. Burlingame most recently collected anecdotes about Lincoln's dark side and then examined them for their possible historic meanings. I might call that scholarship too, though it lacks that climactic charge of the 49th Delaware that pop history prize committees so dearly love.
The disgraced historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is preparing a Lincoln book and is guaranteed it will win the Lincoln Prize the year it comes out. For Goodwin sits on Borritt's prize committees, publishes fluffy, lightweight stuff, and Borritt rose to her defense when she was under attack for plagiarism. (Scroll halfway down the linked page to see his letter to the editor.)
I mentioned months ago that if Richard Norton Smith were going to function as the acceptable figurehead for the Lincoln Library, with no Lincoln background, he would need a string of number twos to do the heavy lifting … a deputy for fundraising, a deputy for political liaison, and a deputy for Lincoln scholarship, among other deputies. If this Dole Institute speaker's roster is an indication, Gabor Borritt is going to be Smith's offsite number two for Lincoln scholarship. The Lincoln filter. The go-to guy for that Lincoln stuff. And it is going to be an era of friends helping friends. An era of big helpings.
Which will not sit well with actual, bona fide scholars, nor with serious readers.