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Scholars of Lincoln once a house divided

If Lincoln scholars could choose which Lincoln quote best describes their world, it probably would not be "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

But that phrase's chances are better if the next couple of days go well.

Today and Monday, more than 20 of the nation's top Lincoln and Civil-War era scholars, plus one from Oxford University in England, will be meeting for a sold-out academic conference at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

For some scholars, the conference offers a chance to mend damaged fences from what's been called a "civil war" within the Lincoln academic community.

It began with guns fired in Springfield 10 years ago.

In early 1995, several acclaimed historians abandoned the Springfield-based Abraham Lincoln Association and formed their own scholarly group, the Lincoln Forum. The reasons for the split were complex, but centered around ALA policy disagreements, alleged conflicts of interest, strong personalities and claims from out-of-town historians that they had been refused access to Lincoln materials.

Since then, some of the tension has dissipated. Because there are dozens of Lincoln- and Civil War-related conferences annually, sharing the podium several times a year with someone on the other side of the fence is inevitable. Today, some scholars are members of both organizations, including some who fled the ALA in 1995.

At least three main organizers of the Lincoln Forum are participating in the Springfield conference, which was put together by state historian Tom Schwartz, a prominent figure in the affairs of 1995 from the ALA side of the fence.

"It's funny, people talk about the divide in the Lincoln field today," says Schwartz. "It existed all the time."

But he concedes this conference could help with issues that continue to smolder.

"As they say, 'time heals old wounds.' It is at least worth a try," Schwartz says.

The ALA controversy "was a big deal," says Harold Holzer, a Lincoln scholar from New York City who resigned from the ALA board in 1995. "But I would say, and I hope that I'm right, that the opening of the (Abraham Lincoln Presidential) Library and Museum is a bigger deal - and an opportunity. It's a new leaf, new page, new direction, all the metaphors that suggest a new beginning."

Holzer and others who split from the ALA ten years ago and are returning to Springfield for the conference have been back to Springfield since then. But participating at the conference is more symbolic, they say.

It's the first time many of the scholars have seen the new library and museum, both of which are expected to draw renewed interest in Lincoln studies.

"We all want to do research (at the library)," Holzer says. "We want to do talks there and see the museum and the rotating scholarly exhibitions."

Conference participants will be given an exclusive tour of the museum by its director, Richard Norton Smith.

"There are still issues," says Frank Williams, a Lincoln scholar and chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Williams was ousted as president of the ALA in 1995. His forced departure sparked the civil war among scholars.

"I'm honored to be asked to participate," Williams says. "I'm looking forward to it."

Williams and Holzer both credit Smith with reaching out to them and smoothing things over. For Williams, the conference might not be a fresh start, but it is a "positive tilt" in the right direction.

He also says the conference is necessary - no dedication of a Lincoln museum should take place without a strong scholarly event.

"Whenever (scholars) get together, despite the differences, it's a good thing," Williams says. "And it speaks to the mission and what should be the basis: the study and dissemination of Abraham Lincoln and (his life)."

The conference covers the gamut of Lincoln research, including discussions of his intimate life, his views of slavery and race, leadership and communication styles and approach to war. Scholars also will talk about Lincoln's assassination and artifact collecting.

The conference runs all day today and Monday, culminating in a discussion of "three generations of Lincoln scholarship" involving Holzer, David Herbert Donald and Matthew Pinsker and moderated by C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb. C-SPAN will televise the museum dedication on Tuesday.

Roughly 275 people have paid to attend at least a portion of the two-day conference, which includes a breakfast in the library's first-floor atrium this morning.

Pete Sherman can be reached at 788-1539 or pete.sherman@sj-r.com.



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