Lincoln scholar hopes to find documents during Coweta visit
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
Daniel W. Stowell, world renowned Abraham Lincoln scholar, will be sharing his insights – and looking for documents related to the 16th president – in Coweta County on Nov. 5.
Stowell, 48, grew up in Newnan and is now the editor and director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. The papers project, which includes papers from Abraham Lincoln’s legal career and other aspects of his life in Illinois, also has a focus on his pivotal presidential years.
He hopes anyone in the local area who has a document related to Lincoln will see him during his visit.
“We are looking for any documents written or signed by Lincoln,” Stowell said.
“It would be a bonus to be able to scan some document that someone in Newnan owns. Given the far-flung distribution of Lincoln documents, I would not be surprised to find one or two in Newnan,” the scholar said.
His November itinerary will seem more than a little familiar to Stowell. His family moved to Newnan in 1971. He spent his second grade year at Northside Elementary, attended Arnco-Sargent for grades 3-7 and then followed the progression of Evans Middle School, Central High and then Newnan High, where he graduated in 1982.
Stowell earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Georgia before heading to the University of Florida, where he earned a PhD in 1994. For his master’s and doctoral work, he studied the impact of the Civil War’s end on Southern evangelicals.
He has written extensively on John H. Caldwell, a Methodist pastor in Newnan who came to see the Confederacy’s defeat as God’s judgment.
Stowell’s doctoral studies also put him through “a couple of courses in legal history” taught by “a great professor – one of the best I had in grad school,” he said. After obtaining his PhD, Stowell heard about a job editing Lincoln’s legal papers in the Illinois capital of Springfield.
“I didn’t get the job I applied for, but I got a better job,” he reflected. He went to work with the Lincoln legal papers project in 1996, becoming the director of the overarching papers project four years later.
“The purpose of the project is to provide virtual, textual and intellectual access,” Stowell said.
One of the assignments Stowell handled was the publication of Lincoln’s legal papers in 2000. First published on 22 CDs, the content has since been re-released on three DVDs. The project covered “96,000 documents from his law practice,” Stowell said, “over 5,100 cases.”
In addition to examining each document and case, there is “a brief, one paragraph summary of each of the cases,” he explained. Lincoln handled a wide range of cases – divorces, bankruptcies. “There are three murder cases,” Stowell noted.
“The Papers of Abraham Lincoln” is a University of Virginia project, a fact that Stowell related with a slight smile. After all, Virginia was a Confederate state during the Civil War. The university press there, however, was interested – reflecting its earlier work on the papers of Washington, Jefferson and Madison. Staff at the Virginia publisher “thought it was great” when they had the opportunity to do a similar project on Lincoln, Stowell said.
The Lincoln papers project is a large one – and one that continues to grow as new pieces are found. Items written by Lincoln range from “his earliest teenage homework-type stuff” to presidential documents signed days before his death, Stowell said. The papers include “incoming as well as outgoing” correspondence, too.
In addition to the legal papers and the items related to his White House years, the project has a separate focus on Lincoln in Illinois – “personal and political” from his arrival in the state in the early 1830s “up to his inauguration,” the scholar noted.
Stowell and his wife, Miriam, traveled to Japan earlier this year where he examined Lincoln papers that belong to Meisei University. Stowell had a list of 61 papers he expected to find at Meisei. The husband-and-wife team finally scanned 112 documents. Of those, 12 or 13 appear to be previously undocumented Lincoln papers.
When a new piece is found, the desired process is to make an electronic image of it, then to transcribe it. Before it is published in an online, electronic or paper format, every effort is made to authenticate the work as genuine Lincoln.
Stowell explained that the textual accessibility means “you convert this handwritten document into text.” Along with that comes identifying where and when it was written and providing information about people, places and events mentioned in the document.
That information sheds light on what was happening in Lincoln’s world at the time and brings to light facts “that are not going to be really apparent to people today” without some explanation, Stowell said.
The move to an Internet accessible system means “a large mass of material” and interconnecting, interactive databases about Lincoln associates, clients and activities is being put together, he explained.
People, places and events – “that covers a lot of the waterfront on annotation,” Stowell said. “It’s an enormous project.” He said the scholarship being done is useful to many researchers in various fields. He predicted the material will eventually be used by scholars of “social history or cultural history” as much as by researchers specifically interested in some facet of Abraham Lincoln’s story.