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

by Keith A. Erekson. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. 272 pp. $80.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-55849-915-7.

Abraham Lincoln, a simple man placed in dramatic situations, is the subject of numerous biographies, studies and research in all facets of his short life. A growing tower full of books standing over four stories tall at the site of his death in Washington D.C. attests to his popularity as a subject. While there is much written concerning his time as President and his rise to the position, in comparison, little is written concerning his existence prior to his twenty-first year. This shortage was noticed and the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society began the “Lincoln Inquiry” in the 1920’s.

Keith Erekson’s examination of the people behind the Lincoln Inquiry stresses his view that there was not a dividing line between academic historians and the “locals” interested in gathering and preserving historical information; each form of information was valuable within its own right. An interview gathered by a lawyer and member of the Historical Society, William Herndon, is from Abraham Lincoln’s step-mother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln. The interview with Mrs. Lincoln and others like it provided valuable information about the young Abraham.

A secondary and unique purpose of the Lincoln Inquiry was to not only gather information about the man, but also that which surrounded him. This group of professionals used the “nexus of geography, culture, and human action, and envisioned the Lincoln homestead as the “hub” around which his environment existed” (94). They wanted to know about the land, beliefs, rivers and all such relations to the life of the Lincoln family.

An interesting chapter is dedicated to the involvement of the Klan and their dealings with the grave of Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. “After the Ku Klux Klan overran Indiana state politics in the mid-1920s, civic leaders hoped to clean up the state’s image by erecting a shrine with massive, cathedral-like memorial to Lincoln’s mother.” The Lincoln Inquiry did not support this idea and wanted focus more toward a historically accurate depiction.

According to Erekson, the Lincoln Inquiry was an active body of people and its concept both succeeded and failed. It was successful in mobilizing over five hundred people to discover everything possible related to Lincoln, but it failed in that the project was entirely too large an undertaking. They were able to develop the first significant collections of oral histories, a standard concept in today’s retrospective research, but they did not know how to properly interview, resulting in missed opportunities.

While this book does carry a small amount of information about Abraham Lincoln, the reader must remember it is not about the man. This book concerns the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society and the group formed from this society. This book would be of interest to anyone interested in early research methods and the development of the oral interview. Extensive research is reflected in the organization of the book and the content of the chapters. Erekson gives the Lincoln Inquiry the respect and treatment they are due for their hard work collecting information about Lincoln’s world.

Paula L. Webb, University of South Alabama, University Library