Abraham Lincoln lived a quarter of his life, from age seven to twenty-one, in southwestern Indiana. Yet for generations after his death biographers tended to downplay his Hoosier years. Many historians in the first couple of generations after his death regarded this frontier as inconsequential to Lincoln’s life and career, except perhaps as a negative.
In 1920, a group of amateur historians in southwestern Indiana determined to shed better light on Lincoln’s formative years, filling in gaps in the historical record and attempting to reverse negative Indiana stereotypes through what they called the Lincoln Inquiry. They hoped to improve Indiana’s image through interviews with Lincoln’s contemporaries and those who knew them to remove myths and errors and reveal a truer Lincoln in the Indiana frontier. The Inquiry focused on Lincoln’s southern Indiana environment and the context of his life between 1816 and 1830.
Although the Lincoln Inquiry expressed substantial bias as they sought to overcome negative stereotypes about southwestern Indiana, their work nevertheless provides valuable insight into Lincoln’s roots and how we approach that history. They produced extensive biographies on families in Lincoln’s Indiana neighborhood and conducted interviews with their descendants. Most first-hand witnesses to Lincoln’s Hoosier life had passed, but the Inquiry was uniquely positioned to research and interview important secondary sources. Many of its members had intimate knowledge of Lincoln’s boyhood home and the families populating his neighborhood. The Inquiry excelled at contextualizing Lincoln within the broader framework of his neighborhood and the southwestern Indiana environment.
In addition to collecting oral history, the Inquiry engaged with professional historians and, in some cases, influenced the broader field of Lincoln history and our knowledge of Lincoln’s Indiana youth. Members frequently interacted and corresponded with the early twentieth century’s leading Lincoln scholars and helped influence history’s view of Lincoln’s youth and development.
Beginning with its founding in 1920 and lasting through its cessation in 1939, the Lincoln Inquiry (under the banner of the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society) met 46 times, featured 369 presentations, and produced approximately 217 papers now scattered in collections and libraries throughout the country. Until now, a judicious, annotated collection of the Lincoln Inquiry’s most historically significant work has never been produced.
Abe’s Youth preserves and extends the Lincoln Inquiry’s important work. Following an introduction contextualizing the Inquiry’s mission and significance, expertly compiled annotations enrich our understanding of the history and context of Lincoln’s boyhood. As the first fully annotated edition of Lincoln Inquiry papers, this volume offers indispensable reading for anyone hoping to investigate Abraham Lincoln’s youth and serves as a gateway for general readers into the environment of Lincoln’s early life.