December 08, 2008: Barry Cauchon
I am pleased to present another interview from my feature “An Awesometalk With”. For this talk, my guest is Illinois State Historian, Dr. Thomas Schwartz.
Dr. Schwartz has been the Illinois State Historian since 1993 and lives and works in Springfield, Illinois. He was instrumental in helping to make the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum a reality.
With Illinois and the rest of the country celebrating both President-Elect Barack Obama’s election and the bi-centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, there is much happening in Dr. Schwartz’ world right now. So due to his overwhelming schedule, Dr. Schwartz could not do a live interview with me but was kind enough to respond to my written questions.
So now, I present to you, Dr. Thomas Schwartz.
BC: Congratulations Dr. Schwartz on your 15 year anniversary as Illinois State Historian. I’d love to hear about your role as the State Historian and about some of your proudest accomplishments.
TS: The title Illinois State Historian was given to Paul M. Angle, the great Lincoln scholar of the 1930s and 1940s in lieu of a pay raise while he served as director of the Illinois State Historical Library, now the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. It went from overseeing the everyday operation of the library to a more protean role of administration of Lincoln projects and research as well as coordinating with fundraising efforts by the Foundation. I suspect the proud achievement was moving the library from the cramped quarters under the Old State Capitol to the multi-structure facilities that comprise the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Transforming the Lincoln Legal Papers into the larger Papers of Abraham Lincoln was also an important milestone. Acquiring the Taper Lincoln Collection would have to be the most recent accomplishment that occurs once in a lifetime.
BC: As we have now completed the US Presidential elections and prepare for the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 2009, I’m interested in your perspective on what the mood is in Illinois.
TS: The mood in Illinois right now is cautious optimism. The election of another President from Illinois, Barack Obama, has been cause for great celebration. But the global economic recession had everyone being a bit apprehensive about the future. We are in a rather ironic situation in that we have wonderful events planned to celebrate the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln at the same time we are closing historic sites, some Lincoln-related, because of budget cuts.
BC: Are there special activities planned for 2009 that you would like to highlight?
TS: People can go to www.Lincoln200.net and see what is going on in Illinois throughout 2009. There are so many great things that I cannot begin to name them all.
BC: The bi-centennial of Lincoln’s birthday has prompted a publishing flurry of new books on Mr. Lincoln. Dr. Schwartz, are there any that you would recommend?
TS: There are a significant number of Lincoln titles that have been released and that are scheduled for the next year. Many are collections of essays that tend to be uneven, a number are monographs that provide an update on a topic that has already received treatment. So while you have many fine books being published, they all have a certain déjà vu about them. A number of fine illustrated books are in the queue: the Kunhardt’s, “LOOKING FOR LINCOLN” and the National Geographic Society, “LINCOLN’S EXTRAORDINARY ERA”.
BC: Your office is in Springfield, Illinois at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and houses one the best overall collections of Lincoln related materials in the world. Can you tell us a little bit about that collection?
TS: The library was established in 1889 to collect the written history of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln is an important subtopic in Illinois history. Being located in Mr. Lincoln’s hometown made it easier for family and friends who knew Lincoln and had original letters and artifacts to donate them to the library. Over the years, the collection grew in size and importance. Governor Henry Horner who served from 1933 to 1940 bequeathed his impressive collection of printed materials about Lincoln to the library. Some of the best Lincoln scholars of the 20th Century were employed by the library. They include Paul Angle, Jay Monaghan, Harry Pratt, and James T. Hickey. Benjamin Thomas was a trustee of the library along with Oliver Barrett, Lloyd Lewis, Ernest East, and Irving Dilliard. The Taper Collection is the most recent significant acquisition.
BC: In your opinion, what are some of the best Lincoln artifacts or documents in the collection?
TS: The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum collection can show every important aspect in Lincoln’s life through a document. We have the earliest known written document by Lincoln with his sum book page, one of five handwritten copies of the Gettysburg Address, a Leland-Boker signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of thirteen signed commemorative copies of the 13th Amendment, a paragraph from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in his hand and a draft printing of his First Inaugural Address that was circulated to a few trusted associates for comments. Of artifacts we have a stovepipe hat, wallet, presidential seal and portfolio, bloody gloves from Ford’s Theatre, clock from the law office, nameplate from the Lincoln Home, and the other cufflink from Ford’s Theatre.
BC: What sort of things will your office be focusing on in the next five years?
TS: We have a number of publications coming out for the bicentennial. We have worked with the Lincoln-Douglas Debate communities to develop signage about the debates. The Looking for Lincoln program is an independent group that we have partnered with for over a decade to help develop historically accurate signage about Lincoln’s relationship with numerous communities throughout Central Illinois. More and more material will be placed online for searching and use. The Papers of Abraham Lincoln will be placing the images of Lincoln’s legal career online in the next month or so. And of course, the Civil War sesquicentennial will start in 2011 continuing through summer of 2015. There is no shortage of work here.
BC: I’m a proponent of good outreach programs. Would you highlight some of the outreach programs that Illinois engages in?
TS: The ALPLM received an NEH grant to create a series of educational learning stations that are traveling the country on Lincoln. This traveling exhibit also comes with a collection of essays on Lincoln’s life written by leading scholars. A mobile exhibit also has traveled throughout the country that is contained in a semi-truck and expands into 900 square feet of exhibit space highlighting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. We have a series of educational trunks and posters available through our Education Department as well as teach materials that can be downloaded from the Internet. THE JOURNAL OF ILLINOIS HISTORY is the journal of record for Illinois history and is published quarterly. There are numerous partnerships we have with the Looking for Lincoln program, the Abraham Lincoln Association, and numerous public colleges and universities.
BC: What historical figures or events personally interest you?
TS: I don’t have any particular favorites since the whole historical enterprise fascinates me. The one thing that becomes readily apparent to any serious student of history is that no matter what time period you study, there are extraordinary individuals and events that can be found. It is simply a matter of making the time to find them.
BC: In your role as Illinois State Historian, have you had an opportunity to meet any famous statesmen from modern history? If so, who did you meet and would you describe an instance that really stood out as a special moment for you.
TS: I have met Governors and Presidents as well as foreign dignitaries, Hollywood directors, actors and corporate leaders. But the people that have left the greatest impression are those who are not actively self-aware. These people do things that benefit their neighbors and community and yet they expect nothing in return. They shun the limelight and go about helping as most of us breath. We don’t actively think about breathing, our bodies do it. These are the folks who really make a difference.
BC: What do you like to do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies or sports that you enjoy?
TS: My job can be all consuming if you let it control you. There is so much to do and so little time in which to do it. But life requires balance. I still have a teenage son who occasionally does not feel embarrassed to be seen in public with me. Cathy, my wife, likes to go on trips with me. Reading fiction and non-US history is great fun. Like all big kids, I like to play in the dirt and have helped on some archaeological digs exploring the Illinois frontier period. I also enjoy music, mostly classical and jazz.
BC: Dr. Schwartz, my last question relates to the education of history. What was your experience with history as a young student? Is there anything that you would like to say to students who are struggling with getting interested in history?
TS: People bemoan the fact the young people don’t seem interested in history. It is not something to worry about. History requires perspective and the perspective comes from life experience. It is difficult for children or teenagers to have a deep appreciation for history because most lack empathy that typically comes with life experience of success and failure. As people get older, they begin to see why history matters and often regret the fact that they didn’t pay more attention to the stories told by their grandparents or parents. I had the good fortune to grow up surrounded by family and extended family who like to get together, eat, drink and tell stories. History was easier for me because it was transmitted in the life stories of the people I loved. The breakup of the modern family has made it more difficult to encounter history in this way. But I really think history, like a fine wine, requires some age before it really matters.
I want to thank Dr. Schwartz for sharing his thoughts with my readers. It’s exactly what I had hoped it would be.
It takes a lot of time (voluntary, I might add) to sit down and answer these questions. I appreciate it very much and hope my readers enjoyed the interview as much as I did.
All the best to you and your family Dr. Schwartz and have a Happy Holiday season.
Other posted interviews to date: