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Margin Notes

James G. Randall and his Essential Lincoln Volumes

10 February 2016

James Garfield Randall was born in 1881, and named for the man who was then president of the United States.  President Garfield, of course, did not survive the year, but his namesake lived to become, perhaps, the greatest Lincoln scholar of his generation. 

Randall spent most of his career as a professor at the University of Illinois, and that institution still endows a chair in History in his name (the current incumbent is the fine Civil War historian, Bruce Levine).  Together with his wife and partner in scholarship, Ruth Painter Randall, he produced an enormous amount of important scholarship that defined what historians now think of as The Blundering Generation school of thought.  To – perhaps unfairly – reduce Randall’s attitude to a nutshell, he and his peers tended to see the Civil War as the product of failure in good governance, and refusal by radicals to engage in the American political tradition of compromise.

To more fully understand what Randall and his peers were thinking readers must consult his four-volume political biography, Lincoln the President.  The series, among the first works written with access to the papers of Abraham Lincoln (Robert Todd Lincoln ordered those papers sealed for a period of years after his death), was published between 1945 and 1952.  Sadly, Professor Randall died before completing the final volume, The Last Full Measure.  It can only be counted as great good fortune that the series was completed by a young scholar who would himself go on to become the dean of Lincoln historians, Richard N. Current.  

In order to understand what Americans thought of Lincoln during the mid-twentieth century, readers must read Randall’s great work, and a collection of Lincoln the President, with dust jackets in very good condition (or better!) is an essential piece of any good collection of Lincoln literature.  At some point we will discuss the monumental Civil War history that best exemplifies the attitude of The Blundering Generation school of thought on the war, Allan Nevins’ The Ordeal of the Union.

Check out our beautiful set of Lincoln As President, with the final volume signed by Richard Current! 

For a deeper analysis of Randall’s magnum opus, see James Harvey Young’s essay in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (1998).