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American History & Jewish History Blog
Ida Tarbell, Library of Congress
September 6, 2023

Ida Tarbell and Her Little-Known Yet Major Influence on Lincoln’s Legacy

In downtown Cincinnati, an 11-foot bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln has been hovering near its busy thoroughfares for over a hundred years. Devoid of his signature beard and framed by rumpled hair instead of his stately hat, Lincoln’s face looks wrinkled and tired. It is a version of Lincoln cast from a time before he became president, from when his humble beginnings and failures would seem to have nearly consumed him whole. When sculptor George Gray Barnard’s statue was unveiled in 1917 by former President William H. Taft, the pushback was immediate: this was not the version of Lincoln that the nation sought to canonize; the statue was pilloried in many newspapers and magazines as a “melancholy mistake in bronze, and as “something the cat brought in on a wet night.”[1] Robert Todd Lincoln referred to the statue as “grotesque.”[2] Yet Theodore Roosevelt called it “the greatest statue of our time.”[3] When a copy of the statue was offered to London as a commemoration of the peace between the United States and the United Kingdom, what would have been a domestic debate surrounding the image of the nation’s sixteenth president rapidly became an international one, as cries of uproar and support could be heard on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Amongst the people who came to the defense of this depiction of Lincoln was one of the most famous women in America at the time, renowned journalist and Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell. Though the sculpture is now firmly ensconced as a great work of art, and Lincoln’s earlier years are now widely perceived to be the foundation of his great character, none of this was a given in 1917. Tarbell had endured a similar journey over two decades before in undertaking a biography of the country’s most beloved leader. The modern audience most likely doesn’t think twice about the depiction of Lincoln as a Kentucky laborer, and that is a testament to the success of Tarbell’s work. 

Ida Tarbell (1857-1944) is a contradiction in terms. She is essentially the mother of investigative journalism whose name is barely remembered, and a trailblazing woman who opposed suffrage for women.[4] When she is recalled, however, it’s for her takedown of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Her life actually began at this critical juncture of what defined her career. Ida Tarbell was born in Pennsylvania to a farming family who decided to seek their fortunes in the new oil boom months after Ida was born. Unfortunately, like many other small oilmen, Ida’s father’s business fell victim to the Cleveland Massacre in 1872. Essentially, John D. Rockefeller negotiated deals with railways to give rebates and discounts to his company, Standard Oil. This allowed him to drop the price significantly and put all the smaller refineries out of business, thus consolidating Rockefeller’s hold on the oil industry. The misfortune that befell the Tarbells was certainly a defining moment in Ida’s life but she was also determined to succeed and contribute to society.

Ida finished high school at the top of her class in 1876. She went on to earn a BA in biology in 1880 and an MA in 1883. She then pursued journalism while cultivating an attraction to French history. 1891, she moved to Paris to work on her first biography about Madame Roland. In 1892, she was hired by Sam McClure to write for his eponymously named magazine. There, she interviewed leading luminaries such as Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola, and Alexandre Dumas.[5] McClure was impressed with Tarbell’s writing and research and eventually commissioned a Napoleon biography to be released as a serial in 1894. This brought Tarbell, now back in the U.S. and living in Pennsylvania, to Washington, DC, to the estate of Gardiner Hubbard who had an extensive Napoleon collection. Hubbard was also supporting his son-in-law, Alexander Graham Bell, and his work on the telephone. Thus, Tarbell often dined with the Bells in addition to the director of the Smithsonian and prominent politicians.

Tarbell’s writing on Napoleon saw sales at McClure’s surge.  She was becoming highly regarded for her well-researched pieces accompanied by clear prose and lyrical language. Tarbell’s next assignment was to write about Lincoln. Five years earlier, in 1890, John Hay and John Nicolay’s Abraham Lincoln: A History had been published. Tarbell, like many people, felt that a ten-volume biography on Lincoln authored by the president’s personal secretaries would sate the public’s desire for Lincoln material. McClure disagreed and directed the bewildered Tarbell to begin her research immediately. Ida first called on Nicolay (she was in a literary society with Nicolay’s daughter), who unwittingly put Tarbell’s work on Lincoln on the path to greatness. He refused to allow her access to any of the Lincoln papers in his possession and told her that her assignment was “hopeless” and that he and Hay had already told “all that was worth telling of Lincoln’s life.”[6] So Tarbell turned her focus towards Lincoln’s early life beginning in Kentucky, following young Lincoln to Indiana, New Orleans, Illinois, and finally, to the White House. Over the course of her journey, she studied the people and places that had been overlooked in understanding Lincoln.

Perhaps the reason Tarbell was so adamant in her defense of Barnard’s work two decades later was that Barnard’s focus echoed her own: the earlier, rougher period of Lincoln’s life. And indeed, Tarbell faced so many of the barriers that Barnard had. Rival magazines sneered that “McClure’s had gotten a girl to try and write a life of Lincoln.”[7] In addition to debunking many myths purveyed by biographers who emphasized the later period of Lincoln’s life, Tarbell’s work actually aimed to show that Lincoln’s early life on the frontier had a positive impact on his character as well as his presidency. 

After Tarbell began to publish the first installments of her Lincoln biography, it was Nicolay who came to her. His attitude hadn’t changed. “You are invading my field,” he exclaimed. “You write a popular Life of Lincoln, and you do just so much to decrease the value of my property.”[8] Robert Todd Lincoln, on the other hand, was a solid ally. He gave her a never-before-seen portrait of Lincoln (which she used as the frontispiece to her book), made himself accessible to her, and when the work was done, considered it “an indispensable adjunct to the work of Nicolay and Hay.”[9] Robert Todd Lincoln’s praise for a book that focused on the “humble and unknown” aspects of his father’s life seems at odds with the debate around the Cincinnati statue that would be unveiled less than twenty years later, with he and Tarbell falling on opposite sides of the debate. The controversy over the Lincoln statue divided Americans over not only Lincoln’s legacy, but the character of the United States. 

Tarbell never stopped writing about Lincoln, and she continued to write profile after profile for McClure’s. She seemed to be connected to the major luminaries of her time and to be omnipresent at historical events. In 1898, Tarbell had been at the military HQ when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbour. She firsthand witnessed the US response to the news, observing Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt bursting into the room like “a boy on roller-skates.” It was Mark Twain who put her in touch with the vice president of Standard Oil for her takedown of the company, and it was this work that led Theodore Roosevelt, now President Roosevelt, to refer to Tarbell and her ilk as “muckrakers” (Tarbell was not thrilled with the moniker and responded in print).

Tarbell’s work on Lincoln and Napoleon laid the groundwork for her exposé of the corruption of Standard Oil. In gaining access to internal documents, which she studied, interviewing company employees, and consulting professionals about her findings, she essentially created what we call investigative journalism. Her book, The History of the Standard Oil Company remains the gold standard of investigative journalism.[10] Perhaps ironically, Rockefeller’s biographer makes a stronger case for Tarbell’s work: “Only three times in the American past have writers produced works that transcended their literary qualities and became in themselves powerful enough to shape history. The first was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense; the second, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; third, Ida M. Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company.”[11]

 

  1. See “A Calamity in Bronze! Mr. Barnard’s ‘Lincoln’ Once More.” The Art World, vol. 3, no. 2, 1917, pp. 99–103. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25588174. Accessed 29 Aug. 2023.
  2. Robert Todd Lincoln, writing to  William Howard Taft on March 22,  1917, referred to the statue as a “monstrous figure, grotesque as a likeness of President Lincoln and defamatory as an effigy.” Cited by Judith Rice in  Rice, Judith A. Abraham Lincoln and Progressive Reform, 1890-1920. 1993. University of Illinois, Doctoral Dissertation. Proquest. p. 6 
  3. Williams, Dan. “George Grey Barnard.” The North American Review, vol. 243, no. 2, 1937, pp. 276–86. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25114876. Accessed 30 Aug. 2023.
  4. The obvious tension between being a renowned journalist and editor at a time when this was an aberration for women and being anti women’s suffrage is addressed by virtually every scholar who writes about Tarbell. For a chronological discussion of Tarbell’s writings on the subject, as well as a nuanced exploration of Tarbell’s background and relationships, see Stinson, Robert. “Ida M. Tarbell and the Ambiguities of Feminism.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 101, no. 2, 1977, pp. 217–39. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20091149. Accessed 14 Aug. 2023.
  5.  Son of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo
  6. Tarbell, Ida M. All in the Day’s Work. New York, Ny, The Macmillan Co, 1939, p. 163
  7. McCully, E. A. (2014). Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman who Challenged Big Business– and Won! Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 95
  8.   Tarbell, p. 163
  9. Ibid, p. 169
  10. Weinberg, Steve. Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller. New York, Norton, 2009, p. 24
  11. “Hawke, David Freeman. John D.: The Founding Father of the Rockefellers. Harper & Row, 1980.” p. 213
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