Lane Center hosts conference on Lincoln and the West
Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West played host on Friday to a discussion of Abraham Lincoln and his legacy in an all-day conference at the Schwab Residential Center, featuring five of the nation’s preeminent Civil War-era scholars.
Friday’s lectures and panel followed Pulitzer Prize-winner James McPherson’s keynote address, which took place on Thursday.
The series was funded by Bill Lane ‘42, former publisher of Sunset Magazine. Lane, in his opening speech on Friday, described the root of his interest in Lincoln and the West.
“My interest in Lincoln started very early,” he said, discussing his time as a tour guide at Yosemite National Park. “I talked my way into being an intern lecturer on the [tour bus at Yosemite], and I immediately started studying Lincoln.”
Lane noted that the connection between Lincoln and University founder Leland Stanford furthered his interest.
“Lincoln’s partnership with, and admiration of, the first governor of California, Leland Stanford, was one of the reasons I was so interested in this topic,” he said. “Lincoln got [Stanford] to agree to take over the management of Yosemite.”
Lane told The Daily that he developed the idea for the conference with History Professors David Kennedy and Richard White, both program directors at the Lane Center.
Kennedy was pleased with the group of scholars who addressed the conference.
“There’s a relatively small and pretty well-known set of people who work in this area who are the leading Lincoln and Civil War scholars,” Kennedy said of the selection process. “The scholars and their aims suggested themselves.”
Following Lane’s speech, Patty Limerick, faculty director of the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado at Boulder, spoke with humor on the “problem of patronage and political appointment in the territories.”
“When have you secured loyalty and how do you know when you’ve secured it?” she asked the attendees. “That gets very complicated on the ground, and it is hard to appoint people you can fully trust when you are, as Lincoln was, having to use those jobs as rewards for people who have been good to you.”
Limerick spoke specifically of New Mexico and Utah, two territories that, according to her, “were going to be tough to try to pursue [Lincoln’s] goals of loyalty and a peaceful West.”
Limerick’s sense of humor resonated well with audience, drawing laughs with lines such as, “the territories of Montana exploded in crabbiness.” She also used “many stories of colorful episodes” in the territories to illustrate that “there is [the Civil War] on, and yet these people [in the territories] are behaving as if they are the center of the universe.”
She attributed this to what she called a general psychological problem – “in such a crisis, territories are the first to suffer, as they are the children of the federal government.”
Following Limerick’s speech was a panel discussion titled, “Lincoln’s War and Lincoln’s West: Ante, Bellum, and Post.” The three panel members included Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California Prof. William Deverell ‘83, former visiting associate professor at Stanford Glenna Matthews and Chief Historian for San Juan Island National Historical Park Michael Vouri.
The conference concluded with a speech by Elliott West, alumni distinguished professor of history at the University of Arkansas. West said the events surrounding the Civil War and the West were tied together by three factors: “size, authority and citizenship,” going on to note that the issues of citizenship were the “most intriguing and disturbing.”
“The government set out to make two groups of citizens who had never been citizens before: freed people in the South and Indians in the West,” West said. “The federal government set out to use precisely the same specific methods to incorporate these people into the nation: Christian mission…and education not only in language and skills but in patriotic belief.”
The reception of these efforts by the government, however, varied between the two groups, according to West.
“The freed people said great, and some Indians said fine, but others said no thank you,” he explained. “What they were told was, ‘you don’t understand. This is not an offer; this is an order.’”
West concluded that, with an examination of Lincoln in the West, “we’re going to have to face the fact that the Lincoln years have a darker tone to them.”
“We look at the West and we see that this remaking of America in the Lincoln years was one of conquest,” West said. “The Lincoln years began with the war of conquest against our neighbor to the South, and ended with a war against the Indians.”
Zach Warma ‘11, a Daily columnist and one of the few students in attendance among a largely older audience, was glad to have attended.
“An incredibly fascinating point was raised…that you so often relegate Lincoln to a very specific area, and the West doesn’t get talked about a whole lot,” Warma said. “Yes, a good amount of it was about Lincoln, but the great deal of it was trying to contextualize the West and California in U.S. history.”