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Is that you, Mr. Lincoln?

Grant will help nationally renowned project use new computer technology to identify early, anonymous Lincoln writings

May 2, 2012

SPRINGFIELD – “With malice toward none, with charity for all” apparently did not count when Abraham Lincoln wrote scathing, anonymous articles for newspapers during his days as an Illinois legislator. Now, a grant will help a nationally renowned project use new computer technology to identify those early, anonymous Lincoln writings that so far have been difficult to link to the future president.

The Office of Digital Humanities of the National Endowment for the Humanities has provided a $50,000 grant to the Papers of Abraham Lincoln to apply sophisticated computer techniques to questions about Lincoln’s early political writings. The project will work with Dr. Patrick Juola, professor of computer science at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to use his stylometric computer programs to authenticate early Lincoln writings in the Sangamo Journal during the years he served in the Illinois legislature (1834-1842).

“This project has the potential to expand substantially our knowledge of a previously little-known part of Lincoln’s life—the letters and editorials he wrote for the newspaper either anonymously or under a pseudonym,” said Daniel W. Stowell, Director and Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

The words of the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural steadied a nation consumed by civil war and have since encouraged countless millions around the globe in their struggles for democracy and equality. However, Abraham Lincoln did not always write to inspire. Both his contemporaries and subsequent historians have suggested that as a young Illinois legislator, Lincoln attacked political opponents by writing vicious, and oftentimes libelous, newspaper articles and published them anonymously or with a pseudonym. Thus far, however, no historian
has conducted a systematic search of relevant newspapers or developed a way to identify which articles Lincoln authored.

Using a computer program to authenticate the works of a key historical figure is a huge leap into a new interdisciplinary world for traditional historians, according to Juola. “A traditional historian is much more at home in an archive full of paper than in a lab of Java code,” he said. “This new approach represents a change in scholarship if a computerized program becomes an acceptable method of authentication.”

Dr. Samuel P. Wheeler, a Research Associate with the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, who has previously studied Lincoln’s anonymous poetry, will lead the team in Springfield. Juola, who has developed software to attribute authorship to a specific individual based on many aspects of the individual’s writing style, will apply those tests to Lincoln’s early political writings.

The Papers of Abraham Lincoln is a long-term documentary editing project dedicated to identifying, imaging, transcribing, annotating, and publishing all documents written by or to Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime (1809-1865). The project is administered through the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and is cosponsored by the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois Springfield and by the Abraham Lincoln Association.

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