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Historical Themes

About Thematic Materials

In his years before the presidency Lincoln migrated westward, helped settle the frontier, worked the land, served in an Indian War, raised a family, and pondered religion. While Lincoln biographers have ably documented these events, the scholarship of American social and cultural history can place Lincoln's experiences in a rich historical context. Likewise, Lincoln's compelling story can help to make the interpretations discussed in scholarly monographs come alive for a public audience.

In order to examine Lincoln's Illinois in light of the literature of American history the Lincoln Project has set two goals. First, project staff have worked to assemble a large database of primary source materials that extend beyond Abraham Lincoln's immediate experiences to include broader social, cultural and political events in Illinois. An example can help illustrate this initiative. As a young man Abraham Lincoln served in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk Indian War of 1832. Instead of merely documenting Lincoln's few activities during this conflict, Lincoln/Net presents a larger, more detailed set of documents, maps, and other primary source materials that will allow site users to explore the conflict and its origins for themselves. These materials include first-person accounts of battles, but they also extend to governor's letters describing the political pressures and concerns behind the decision to call up the militia and prosecute the war to its end.

The presentation of primary source materials and Lincoln/Net's sophisticated indexing and search technology can help users to probe the context in which Lincoln lived. But many users will still wonder "what should I search for?" Outside of a classroom environment, Lincoln/Net users may struggle to formulate historical questions and hypotheses to test in the databases. Lincoln/Net brings the findings and debates of American historians to the World Wide Web in order to help its users make use of its databases. In addition to online Lincoln biographical materials, Lincoln/Net also presents eight sets of thematic interpretive materials examining some of the major topics in American historical scholarship. These materials include discussions of African American history and American racial attitudes; economic development and labor; frontier settlement; law and society; Native American relations; political development; religion and culture; and women and gender roles.

These materials currently consist of short essays prepared by the Lincoln Project staff. In the future Lincoln/Net will present original interpretive materials prepared by leading American historians.

Lincoln/Net users may consult these materials at any time by clicking on the button marked "Thematic Materials" at the upper left of every screen. Thus a Lincoln/Net user finding a legal case file in the database may immediately proceed to interpretive materials discussing law and society.

In addition, site users may examine materials pertaining to individual themes by restricting their search of the Lincoln/Net database. Such restricted searches may take place from the search form presented on a thematic interpretive page itself, or from the main Lincoln/Net search page.

Such restricted searches build upon the Lincoln Project's foundation in fully indexed digital materials. In preparing primary source materials for inclusion in the Lincoln/Net databases, staff members have examined the materials closely and noted their relationship to the project's eight major interpretive themes. Thus if a frontier woman's diary mentions Native Americans, political elections, and church activities, Lincoln Project staff would mark it for inclusion in the sets of materials pertaining to women and gender roles; frontier settlement; Native Americans; political development; and religion and culture. Clearly most materials in the database will appear in multiple searches. This purposeful redundance should help users to find interesting materials quickly.

Lincoln/Net's use of thematic interpretive materials addresses the "what should I search for?" question in two ways. First, it helps Lincoln/Net users to bring materials directly pertaining to specific historical themes together with historians' interpretations. But the juxtaposition of online primary source materials and interpretations also introduce Lincoln/Net users to the discussions of American historians, and suggest how they arrive at hypotheses and conclusions. Ultimately, they challenge individual Lincoln/Net users to test and challenge historians' interpretations for themselves.

As a recent philosopher remarked, all we have of the past are its texts and other artifacts. We each interpret them for ourselves.

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