Back in 1949, two researchers, J. S. Bruner and Leo Postman, wanted to sort out the relationship between what we see and how we interpret what we see. They did a proper study of it — “On the Perception of Incongruity: A Paradigm”, Journal of Personality, 18:206 ff. (1949), if you want to look it up.

Bruner and Postman asked people to identify playing cards flashed before them for a fraction of a second. But they’d put in a few trick cards — a red six of spades, for instance, or a black four of hearts. The idea was that the trick cards would delay the response time as the subjects paused to figure them out.

It didn’t work. The subjects went at it knowing for a fact that a deck of cards has four and only four descriptive classifications — red hearts, red diamonds, black spades and black clubs. That presumption overcame observation, and the subjects immediately described the cards as they expected cards to be, not as those particular cards really were.

Bruner and Postman let the test subjects look longer and even asked leading questions, but still none of them could see the reality right there in front of their eyes. If forced to think about it, they became visibly confused and uncomfortable. “Oh, I don’t know what it is!” one shouted. “Take it away!”

And so it is, Bruner and Postman concluded, “either a very sick organism, an overly motivated one, or one deprived of the opportunity to ‘try-and-check,’ which will not give up an expectancy in the face of a contradictory environment. It would be our contention, nonetheless, that for as long as possible and by whatever means available, the organism will ward off the perception of the unexpected, those things which do not fit his prevailing set.”

That is, people honestly cannot perceive anything that doesn’t fit their expectation. That affects any investigation at least a little, but Lincoln Studies rather depends upon it.

Recently a few studies have pointed that out. In 2002 Thomas DiLorenzo published his The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, which he followed in 2006 with his Lincoln Umasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe.

In 2009 John Avery Emison gave us Lincoln Über Alles: Dictatorship Comes to America. Now there’s my own little effort, The Lincolns in the White House: Slanders, Scandals, and Lincoln’s Slave Trading Revealed. It has plenty of details and documentation of how Lincoln Studies goes wrong, a whole chapter on their method, in fact. And there’s lots more to come.

Just as an overview, though, real historiography starts with the evidence and then logically derives conclusions. But professional Lincoln Studiers work backwards. They start with a few standard assertions — Lincoln Was A Hardy Pioneer Youth, Lincoln Saved The Union, Lincoln Freed The Slaves, Lincoln Was The Greatest President, that sort of thing. Of course there’s not a shred of evidence confirming any of those conclusions — no, there really isn’t — that’s the point — and every shred that we have left to us confirms just the opposite. So for the past 150 years or so Lincoln Studiers have trimmed and tucked those shreds to fit those categories because those are the only categories possible, as far as they can see.

Sometimes they just paraphrase the document into its reverse, which is understandable as an honest report of what the Lincoln Studier got out of reading it. Bruner and Postman might have had more to say about it when the interpretation flatly contradicts the original document quoted right there on the same page.

They might be hard pressed to explain how documents get lifted from their context and set into another series of events altogether. It’s like forcing a puzzle piece into the wrong place because you know for certain that the picture is supposed to be different from the one on the box, the one into which all of the other pieces fit perfectly.

Sometimes professors of Lincoln Studies have to cut out significant passages to make a document fit, so sometimes what’s left makes no more grammatical than historical sense. But in fact altering original documents to fit those preconceptions is so normal in the field that it’s difficult to get to real evidence about Lincoln.

Sometimes even the most prominent Lincoln Studiers edit a document just a little to say what its author must have actually meant, because nobody could actually mean what that author wrote about Lincoln. That’s why, as you read along, you might be puzzled by an added “not” or a missing one. One recent prize winner inserted “[Mrs.]” in front of Lincoln’s name to deflect an insult from The Emancipator to Mary Todd, whom he frankly despises — you always have to check the originals.

That’s another problem, though. The violence to the originals is often so astonishing in its scope that it can’t be accidental. For example, the son of Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles thoroughly re-wrote his father’s diaries before publishing them with the promise that “the text of the diary has been in no way mutilated or revised… No other evidence can be more sacred than a diary.”

The official editions of Lincoln’s own writings, even Roy P. Basler’s Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Rutgers 1955) — eight volumes, index, supplement and all — silently correct Lincoln’s habitual misspellings and his constant grammatical solecisms, but that way it all fits into the picture better.

Still, rewriting documents can only go so far. So from the beginning the giants in the field have simply gathered up and burned any documents within their grasp that said otherwise — and it all said otherwise. Notably, Henry Horner, Vice President of the Abraham Lincoln Association and Governor of Illinois; Oliver R. Barrett, President of the Board of Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library and greatest Lincoln collector of them all; and of course Robert Todd Lincoln himself are all on record as ordering some of the greatest collections of primary Lincoln documents ever known consigned to the flames. Or just burning them, themselves.

That’s why you’ll notice in the Lincoln literature that no new evidence is brought forward, no new information is added to our understanding. Generations of Lincoln Studiers haven’t had any choice but to play the cards that they’re dealt, and shuffle them over and over again.

Kevin Orlin Johnson

Kevin Orlin Johnson holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in the History of Architecture, a Master’s degree in Art History, and a Bachelor’s degree in Art History; he has also fulfilled the requirements for a Bachelor’s degree in History. His publications in his principal field, on topics as varied as Louis XIV’s first designs for Versailles or the design of the Chapel of the Most Holy Shroud in Turin, are considered definitive by many scholars here and abroad. He is the author of The Lincolns in the White House (Pangaeus Press, 2022)


  • Harto says:

    “Sometimes professors of Lincoln Studies have to cut out significant passages to make a document fit, so sometimes what’s left makes no more grammatical than historical sense. But in fact altering original documents to fit those preconceptions is so normal in the field that it’s difficult to get to real evidence about Lincoln. Sometimes even the most prominent Lincoln Studiers edit a document just a little to say what its author must have actually meant, because nobody could actually mean what that author wrote about Lincoln. That’s why, as you read along, you might be puzzled by an added “not” or a missing one.”

    When translating a work – particularly an ancient one – from one language to another, there’s often a lot of stressing over the intended meaning of the author’s words. This is the reason why we have so many translations of the Bible. When doing this sort of translation work, it’s understandable that sometimes context is lost or words are mistranslated, although these are obviously things to be avoided.

    All of this makes it so much more crass – almost comically so – when modern day Lincoln Studiers attempt to “translate” English into English, and in doing so “accidentally” leave out inconvenient context to suit their narrative. These folks could read a man’s meal request – “I would like a cheeseburger for dinner” – and would confidently tell us that the man was telling us about how he wanted a plant-based “impossible” burger; the “translator’s” own vegan preferences having no bearing on the interpretation, of course.

    • scott Thompson says:

      he was in psychological turmoil and anything he did is a ok…no one else gets that luxury though.

      • scott Thompson says:

        Even when he sold his inherited slaves and didn’t free them for 2000 dollars…it wasnt an action of the age, it was noble. divine. …he was so torn, so beleaguered…and got a bullet in his skull.

  • I once read that when someone had a choice between several choices, once one choice was made, the others fell by the wayside and even repressed and then forgotten.
    This writer then said this trait is an utter survival trait and anyone who did not do this was soon eliminated from the gene pool!
    Like: the cave entrances and the siber tooth tiger is running to kill you. You run to *a* cave. you better not have second thoughts about whether one of the other caves is a better safety, you will get killed when you run outside!

    Same with stuff like choosing one car over several others, at the used car lot. Once you make that Choice, you have to bond to it and then forget the other cars!

    Once history is written it has to be engraved in stone and then forever. History, too, is written by the victors.
    Little hope here to change the narrative!

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    I don’t think you understand the moral dilemma the yankees face…without the high moral ground, they have to swallow the fact they committed war crimes on a scale never seen in the West…ever. In the last days of the War, they burned the University of Alabama to the ground…the librarian was allowed to take one book away for seed corn. When I let people guess as to which book was taken, people ALWAYS think it was a Bible. Then I ask them, “how many Bibles were there in Alabama in 1865?”. They then understand it cannot be a Bible saved from the flames.

    The South was filled with good people…God-fearing people. The White Men, with their most trusted slaves had gone off to war in Virginia and Tennessee…the vast majority of fighting was done far away from their homes. The White Men did not fear for their families, for their families were left in the care of slaves (if the person was one of the few able to afford such a luxury item). The White Men knew the slaves would, as BT Washington stated, “lay down their lives to protect the White women and children left in their care”. This is why it has been so important for the yankees to tear down the Confederate Arlington Memorial…they are in a panic to prevent truth from being revealed.

    NO yankee State ever passed a tax to free slaves in that State…all yankee States gave ample time to allow owners to sell their slaves “down the river”. They merely discarded the slaves for fear of their competition with free, White labor.

    During the War, it was legal for a free black man to own slaves, property, businesses in Mississippi…while the same black man COULD NOT MOVE TO ILLINOIS. During the War, it was legal for a free black man to sell his services to the State of Louisiana and gather up a few hundred of his fellow blacks and offer their services as a militia to defend LOUISIANA…to be the first black military officer in the history of the Confederacy and the United States…but the same black men COULD NOT LIVE IN OREGON.

    Yankees are upon the horn of a dilemma…the internet has allowed all the information our ancestors knew to be true…to be examined by the modern WOKE. Daily, I have conversations with the brainwashed among us…black and White alike. This is why the controllers of the narrative are so desperate to label anything not of the narrative as “fake news”.

    Keep the faith…be truthful…understand the fact victors have been writing and re-writing history for thousands of years…it is only NOW we can fight back against the narrative by presenting truth in forums such as this one. I promise you…those who write here…your words are not being ignored…you are drops of truth filling the anti-narrative bucket.

    What book would a wise man choose? He chose to take a copy of The Alcoran of Muhamed…as any Christian should…you must understand the mind of your enemy…Christians are warriors…Christ was a warrior. Go study the mind of your yankee enemy…there are no chinks in his armor…he’s standing naked and afraid.

  • R R Schoettker says:

    I agree with Mr. Platt’s opinion on this matter although, no doubt, I have come to this conclusion by a different route than that of a son of the south. In the end, truth will out. Eventually the lie currently masquerading as it; that myth of a legacy of yankee virtue with Lincoln as its noble figurehead, will be exposed and dispelled when its current adherents are inevitably destroyed by their own ignorant profligacy and hubris and they drag their ‘heros’ down with them.

  • Ken Z says:

    Mankind has a propensity for lying.

    No better cover for lying than in the writing of history. Everyone expects the truth from the historian. The lies can be hidden in plain sight.

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