Professors and practitioners of history will tell you that the only way to really understand historical events or historical figures is to read original sources. If you want to know about Luther or Lincoln, your best course of action is to read what they wrote – unfiltered if possible, in the original editions if you can, and in their own handwriting best of all.

Part of my lifelong fascination with Martin Luther came from the marvelous year I spent poking around in the archives of the State of Hesse in Germany, where many of Luther’s letters are preserved. Holding in my hands a stack of letters written by Luther made the Reformation real in a way that nothing else ever could.

Two unique books appeared this year which skillfully incorporate the benefits of tangible, original documents. The first is Lincoln: The Presidential Archives. The second is David McCullough’s 1776: The Illustrated Edition.

Lincoln archivesThe new Lincoln book is the one that came to my attention first. It was published in September of this year. Chuck Wills is an accomplished author and he does an excellent job outlining Lincoln’s life and political career in nine chapters. The text is interspersed with hundreds of photographs and shots of newspaper headlines and front pages. But what really sets this book apart is the inclusion of facsimile reproductions of original documents. About a dozen are included, each Lincoln archives interioron a tinted separate heavy-stock sheet slipped into a translucent pocket at the appropriate place in the books narrative. With the chapter discussing Lincoln’s boyhood and education, there is a reproduction of a page from his “sum book.” In the chapter on his marriage and young family, there is a reproduction of his marriage license to Mary Todd. In each case, holding an original document (even it is only a well-crafted facsimile) makes the historical account richer, nearer, more tangible and provokes a more visceral, emotional response. It makes Lincoln much more real, much less abstract. The text is written on an adult level (though certainly not too advanced for high school students), and many students will need some help in absorbing and understanding the historical documents, but I can’t think of a better way to introduce students to the raw materials of history and historical research. For anyone with a historical sense of who Lincoln was (and the text and photographs will give it to you), seeing a flyer for a play at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 and then seeing the “wanted” poster issued in the manhunt for Lincoln’s assassins produces a profound effect. For anyone with an interest in Lincoln, I highly recommend this book – especially if your students have an interest in understanding how historians conduct their research. Note: 2008 will be the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. I know its a cliche to study Lincoln around President’s Day, but 2008 will be a special year. Here’s a list of the historical, facsimile documents included in the book:

  • a leaf from Lincoln’s string-bound childhood sum book
  • Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s marriage license, 1842
  • Patent application submitted by Lincoln in 1849
  • 1860 campaign banner for the Republican ticket
  • First letter carried over the plains by the Pony Express with the news “Lincoln elected,” November 8, 1860.
  • Letter from Mary Todd to Abraham sent during her tour of New England in the fall of 1862
  • Lincoln’s original handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863
  • Telegram from New York City to Lincoln with news of the Draft Riot, July 13, 1863
  • Telegram from Sherman to Lincoln presenting him with Savannah as a “Christmas gift,” December 25, 1864
  • Telegram from Lincoln to Grant encouraging him, February 1, 1865
  • Poster advertising “Our American Cousin” to be performed at Ford’s Theater April 14, 1865
  • Broadside offering rewards for the capture of Lincoln’s assassins

Click on the books title, Lincoln: The Presidential Archives, here or in the text above to order directly from Greenleaf Press. The price is $40.
1776The second book of this type is 1776: The Illustrated Edition by David McCullough, just released from the publisher this October. I LOVED this book when it first came out. The narrative focuses on a single year and takes us month by month, week by week, often day by day through the events of the remarkable year. McCullough has won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. He’s a brilliant writer and historian. His historical books read almost like novels and are perfect examples of the importance of the maxim, “above all, tell a good story.” With a new introduction by David McCullough, 1776: The Illustrated Edition brings 140 powerful images and 37 removable replicas of source documents to this remarkable drama.

1776bIn 1776, David McCullough told the story of the greatest defeats, providential fortune, and courageous triumphs of George Washington and his bedraggled army. In 1776: The Illustrated Edition, the efforts of the Continental Army are made even more personal, as an excerpted version of the original book is paired with letters, maps, and seminal artwork. More than three dozen source documents — including a personal letter George Washington penned to Martha about his commission, a note informing the mother of a Continental soldier that her son has been taken prisoner, and a petition signed by Loyalists pledging their allegiance to the King — are re-created in uniquely designed envelopes throughout the book and secured with the congressional seal.

Both a distinctive art book and a collectible archive, 1776: The Illustrated Edition combines a treasury of eighteenth-century paintings, sketches, documents, and maps with storytelling by our nation’s preeminent historian. Like the Lincoln book, the inclusion of facsimile originals makes everything much more real. For your students, the original sources are a way to help them understand the rich reality of the past. For any history buffs among your family and friends, this would make an excellent gift. The hardcover, slipcased edition with source documents is $65, but worth every penny. Click the title anywhere in the review to order direct from Greenleaf.

– Rob Shearer
Director, Schaeffer Study Center
Publisher, Greenleaf Press