Book Review by David J. Kent


February 2023

 by Abraham Lincoln: His 1858 Time Capsule by Ross Heller (CustomNews, Seaside Books, 2022, 188 pp) Editor (and Lincoln Group member) Ross Heller offers up both a “classic” and a newly released book in one. Abraham Lincoln had little formal schooling, having picked up what he needed “by littles,” and yet has become known for his ability to craft deeply meaningful writing. In 1858, while campaigning for the U.S. Senate against Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln unwittingly created what Heller calls a “time capsule of his contemporary mind-set on both slavery and race relations.” It was captured in a small 3.25” x 5.78” notebook, or scrapbook, and sent to a political colleague named James N. Brown. Heller has republished the notebook’s content and augmented it with its fascinating history.

This volume prints the entire notebook in full, giving us a detailed look into Lincoln’s thinking on the equality of races. It includes the short notes Lincoln wrote to introduce a series of newspaper clips from his debates with Douglas, plus an 8-page letter Lincoln wrote to clarify his positions on “Negro equality.” Lincoln reiterates his belief that “the negro is included in the word ‘men’ used in the Declaration of Independence” and that “the declaration that ‘all men are created equal’ is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest; that negro slavery is violative of that principle.” That principle reiterated, Lincoln also knew that advocating for full equality was a death knell for getting elected, so provided clippings to help counter that idea. These passages are critically important to understanding Lincoln and his times.

But Heller has gone much further. He has given us the history of the book, its acquisition, its facsimile publication in 1901 by three devotees, including Lincoln biographer and muckraker Ida M. Tarbell, and the modern history of its rediscovery. There are additional notes added by Brown providing added insights into the content and historical perspective. There are many appendices adding details about the original clippings, those added by Brown, the provenance of the notebook, and other explanatory information. Premier Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer adds a special introduction that puts everything into context. To top it off, the cover features a painting by famed Lincoln artist Wendy Allen.

As had been the case with the original notebook, the current physical book is small in format, with much of the content reproduced from newspapers and letters. That content provides a deeper understanding of Lincoln’s thinking, and the history of the notebook’s journey through time is fascinating in itself. It’s well worth the read.