The Magazine


Merrill Peterson, 1921-2009.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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The martyred Lincoln's former law partner "Billy" Herndon scoured the backwoods of Illinois and Kentucky for Lincoln reminiscences of every degree of reliability, from fact to pure fancy. Herndon's endeavor (especially his unresting effort to dash sentimental notions of Lincoln's piety) became the overture to an endless process of mythologizing. Rarely has the power of myth been so cogently or interestingly inspected as it was by Peterson in Lincoln in American Memory (1994). On these two great and original works--the Lincoln study and The Jefferson Image in the American Mind--as on his one-volume Jefferson biography and his magisterial study of the Compromise of 1850--rests Merrill Peterson's reputation. It is formidable, and will endure.

A personal footnote: When the late Staige Blackford, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, asked Peterson to review one of my books (from which the opening quotation is drawn), he politely declined. I was disappointed, of course. But Peterson told Blackford that, since he had been favorably mentioned in the book, he feared being less than objective. Nothing was said about that great bugaboo, "the conflict of interest." Good historians rise well above such conflicts, which smack of personal favor and whim and do small justice to their professional standards and scruples.

For Peterson, the integrity of the past was a legacy approaching the sacred. Had he reviewed my amateur history, professional candor might have obliged him to note differences of interpretation and even an error or two; so he had to choose between friendship and history; and he chose history--rightly so. His was no frivolous or finicking scruple. It was Merrill Peterson's obeisance to the contours of the past. And that, after all, is the first obligation of a great historian.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former columnist and editor in Washington, is the author, most recently, of Lions at Lamb House.