Paul M. Angle, historian

From this viewpoint, the last names of Illinois authors Edgar Lee Masters, William Maxwell and Frank Norris can be seen at the near corner on the frieze that runs around the Gwendolyn Brooks Building, just below the top floor. (SCHS)

Of the 35 eminent Illinois writers whose last names are engraved on the frieze that decorates the  Illinois State Library, only three had significant connections to Sangamon County. Two are predictable – Abraham Lincoln and Vachel Lindsay.

The third is Paul M. Angle (1900-75), who lived in Springfield beginning in 1925, when he was named executive secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Centennial Association (now the Abraham Lincoln Association). He later was historian of the Illinois State Historical Library (today’s Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library) and secretary of the Illinois State Historical Society. Angle left Springfield in 1945 to direct the Chicago Historical Society.

Paul M. Angle

Angle’s most popular book was The Lincoln Reader, a collection of articles by 65 historians that combined to present a cohesive one-volume biography of Lincoln. It was a Reader’s Digest Book of the Month in 1947.

Angle also related the early history of Springfield and Sangamon County in Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln’s Springfield, 1821-1865. First published in 1935, Here I Have Lived remains an important resource for local historians.

In one passage, Angle describes Lincoln’s reception when he first moved to Springfield.

(T)he first weeks in his new home were depressing ones. The “flourishing about in carriages” which he noticed deepened his dejection at his own poverty and made him painfully sensitive of his social shortcomings. Three weeks after his arrival he moodily summed up his feelings: “This thing of living in Spirngfield is rather a dull business, after all; at least it is to me. I am quite as lonesome here as I ever was anywhere in my life. I have been spoken to by but one woman since I have been here, and should not have been by her if she could have avoided it. I’ve never been to church yet, and probably shall not be soon. I stay away because I am conscious I should not know how to behave myself.”

But the mood soon passed. …

Angle died in Chicago. His body was donated to science.

Note: See Richard Hart’s comment below for much, much more on Paul Angle’s contribution to the study of Abraham Lincoln. 

Gwendolyn Brooks Building

The Illinois State Library building, on the southeast corner of Second and Monroe streets,  was dedicated on June 20, 1990 and renamed in honor of Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks in 2003. The library, created by Stephen A. Douglas in 1839, was housed in the Old State Capitol, the present Statehouse and the Howlett Building (formerly the Centennial Building) before the Brooks Building was constructed.

For more information, see the library’s history page.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.


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3 Responses to Paul M. Angle, historian

  1. Richard Hart says:

    Defining the Study of Lincoln: The Contributions of The Abraham Lincoln Association

    By Thomas F. Schwartz

    In 1923, Logan Hay reactivated Association publications with the issuance of an annual Bulletin. This was followed in 1924 with the appearance of The Lincoln Centennial Association Papers, containing the text of the speaker presentations before the Association in that year. While Hay could oversee the copyediting and production of the annual Bulletin and Papers, the new research agenda required the establishment of full-time personnel to oversee research and writing implicit in their research agenda. Income from membership was insufficient for sustaining salaried staff. The solution required the establishment of an endowment fund. In 1925, Hay persuaded a number of civic-minded Springfield families that went back to the Lincoln era—Bunn, Hatch, Pasfield, and Humphrey—to donate the initial funding for the Association endowment. With this financial wherewithal, Hay began interviewing potential executive secretaries. He gave the job to Paul M. Angle, a young man from Mansfield, Ohio who had a history degree from Miami University. Hiring Angle was based upon his potential rather than a record of accomplishment. Angle later admitted that his only knowledge of Lincoln was obtained by reading Lord Charnwood’s Lincoln biography on the train in route from Chicago to Springfield before his interview.

    Angle, however, was a quick study. He began to collect photocopies of original Lincoln documents with an eye toward those that escaped publication by previous Lincoln biographers Nicolay, Hay, and Tarbell. Angle also began to build reference files on every important topic regarding Lincoln, his family, and Lincoln’s Springfield. Within the six-year period of 1925 through 1930, Angle wrote an incredible corpus of reference materials. Among these were two editions of guide books to the Lincoln sites in Springfield, seven pamphlets of Lincoln’s day-by-day activities for the years 1854 through 1861, twenty-one regular bulletins and a monograph, New Letters and Papers of Lincoln (1930). Angle also clarified the new direction of the Association by changing the name from the Lincoln Centennial Association, an event that had occurred in 1909 but of little relevance in 1929, to the Abraham Lincoln Association, a timeless moniker.

    The Association was the center of national attention in 1929 when Paul Angle exposed as forgeries The Atlantic Monthly’s published love letters between Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. According to Wilma Minor, the owner of the letters and author of the articles in the Atlantic Monthly, the materials had been handed down through her family. Initially, the poet Carl Sandburg, and the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell were both attracted to the dramatic power of the romance that was revealed in the correspondence. But Angle knew Lincoln’s handwriting, having just finished transcribing letters for the new edition of Lincoln’s letters. Moreover, Angle also had an ear for Lincoln’s literary voice and knew that the writings were a poor imitation. In the end, the letters proved to be the result of spirit writings channeled through the hand of a medium who happened to be Wilma Minor’s mother.

    Another little-known project of the Association was research on the proposed Lincoln Memorial Highway. The project sought to find the exact route that Abraham Lincoln and his parents traveled from Kentucky, to Indiana, to Illinois. Confusion abounded with hundreds of notarized affidavits being sent by individuals stating that the Lincolns stopped at their farm, watered their oxen team from their well and other variations on a theme. Typically, the statements were based upon second or third hand information transmitted by family members or friends. Governor Emmerson referred the matter to a five-member panel—all consisting of Abraham Lincoln Association members—for investigation. Paul Angle side-stepped the issue stating “At the present time it appears likely that the investigating committee will be unable, by reason of the absence of conclusive evidence, to establish the exact location of the route the Lincolns followed, but in any event a positive gain of some importance in historical knowledge seems assured.”

    The “historical knowledge” that Angle sought was of a certain kind. Like his mentor, Logan Hay, Angle probed for written primary source materials in the form of letters, court records, newspapers, pamphlets, the Illinois and Congressional Journal of Debates, tax records, census data, and election returns. Sources avoided or viewed with suspicion were artifacts and material culture such as Lincoln’s personal effects and a careful examination of the surviving structures from the Lincoln era. Archeology conducted by the State of Illinois at New Salem was completely ignored by Benjamin Thomas in his study of this frontier community. Recollections, especially those recorded decades after the fact, were given a hoary eye unless they could be independently verified with contemporary written records. This approach to research methodology comported with James Garfield Randall’s call for professionalism in Lincoln studies. In his seminal 1936 article, “Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?” Randall noted the professional standards used by the Abraham Lincoln Association in its contributions to Lincoln studies.

    Despite Paul Angle’s departure in 1932 to head the Illinois State Historical Library, he was replaced by a succession of capable scholars such as Benjamin Thomas and Harry E. Pratt, both having Ph.D’s in history.

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