Library a treasure trove for Lincoln expert
Author, in Albany to talk about new book on 16th president, views rare items in state collection

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"I never knew Lincoln had a dog," Doris Kearns Goodwin was saying. She was thumbing through a published family photo album in the State Library's special collection of Abraham Lincoln material.

And there it was, a mixed breed above the caption "Lincoln's dog," amid family snapshots of the 16th president and his brood.

"I knew Lincoln had a goat and that Seward gave him some kittens, but I've never seen a picture of his dog," said the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and presidential historian. She was in town Tuesday to talk about her latest book, "Team of Rivals," a No. 1 bestseller that examines Lincoln and his inner circle.

Her visit was sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute.

She made a detour to the State Library to view rare items that Senior Librarian Paul Mercer culled from the collection. She also wanted to thank the staff for their assistance in her research.

Goodwin credits the State Library in the book's acknowledgments.

"I found some very useful Seward materials here," she said. "Seward is one of my favorite characters in the book."

William Seward, a native of Orange County, graduated from Union College in Schenectady and was a state lawmaker and governor before joining Lincoln's Cabinet.

"When Seward came to Albany in the early 1820s, it had a population of about 12,000, and he said it had doubled to 24,000 by the time he came back as a state senator in 1830," said Goodwin, who possesses a remarkably facile mind that can recall an almanac of Lincolniana and long passages of the president's letters and speeches verbatim.

Goodwin's only regret about driving through downtown Albany 175 years after Seward was on the scene was what was gone. Namely, the boarding houses where Seward and some of the 31 other state senators of his day stayed -- Bemont's and Eagle's, which featured taverns and rooms for rent -- are ghosts of political history. One of Seward's colleagues famously had tried to seduce Seward's wife at Bemont's.

"This was my most challenging and complex book, but I thoroughly enjoyed the period and didn't want to leave it," Goodwin said. "I could have kept going and done a separate biography on Seward. He's a fascinating figure."

Even after spending long years on "Team of Rivals," Goodwin said Lincoln remains a bottomless well for historians.

Mercer informed her of a few Albany-related Lincoln facts she hadn't known. The actor-turned-assassin, John Wilkes Booth, twice was nearly fatally wounded by knife play while in Albany. One wounding occurred in a botched rehearsal for a play in which the knife used wasn't a prop as intended. The second cutting came during a drunken fight with a woman.

To complicate matters, Lincoln had passed through Albany the same day that Booth nearly succumbed to the knife wound in the capital city, Mercer told Goodwin.

She arched her eyebrows and wanted to know more.

Goodwin delighted at reviewing the material Mercer had pulled from the collection, including an outsize 1860 Lincoln-Hamlin presidential election poster. There were also more than a dozen political cartoons from that era.

"We tend to think of Lincoln as a holy person we can't criticize today, but political cartoonists took plenty of shots at him in his day," Mercer said.

Mercer selected one election cartoon depicting Lincoln as a baseball player leading his team to victory.

The author of "Wait Till Next Year," a memoir of rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers with her dad, chuckled at the baseball allusion.

"Everyone keeps asking me if Lincoln would be a Red Sox fan, and I say of course, because he loved underdogs," Goodwin said.

Goodwin uttered exclamations of delight -- "Oh, cool!" and "That's fantastic!"-- as she perused unusual items such as a Civil War-era board game, "The Game of Secession and Rebellion."

She settled over a portrait of an early, cleanshaven Lincoln. "I love him so much without the beard," she said. "I wish he had never grown one."

Goodwin's lighthearted commentary turned reverent when she was allowed inside the library's vault for a look at its most prized possession: a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation written in Lincoln's own hand.

Seward edited this preliminary copy and crossed out words and phrases and wrote in his proposed changes with a pencil.

"This is amazing," Goodwin said. "I've only seen facsimiles. To see the original has so much power. It's stunning."

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at pgrondahl@timesunion.com.