A Sister's Final Gift Provides a New View of Lincoln

Mar 13, 2017

Two years ago, a 64-year-old woman was killed when a car speeding along Richmond’s Grove Avenue crashed into her silver sports car.  Historian Elizabeth Pryor was known for books about Robert E. Lee and Clara Barton – works she published before and after a 20-year career with the foreign service.  Shortly before her death she had finished another book, seven years in the making. 

Sandy Hausman spoke with her sister about that controversial new study of Abraham Lincoln.

Elizabeth Pryor wasn’t planning to write about the nation’s 16th president, but she had just won The Lincoln Prize -- $50,000 for her book on Robert E. Lee, and while researching the roles of women and native Americans in the Civil War she came across an unpublished drawing of Lincoln.  Her sister Beverly Brown says Elizabeth was excited by the image.

“He had big, long, gangly legs, and he was sitting there with his legs raised up above his ears, and other people talk about Lincoln sitting in that position, like a cricket, on the front porch of the White House,” she says.

Pryor’s research unearthed other little-known details of Lincoln’s life from which she crafted Six Encounters with Lincoln: A President Confronts Democracy and Its Demons.  Brown says her sister recast the man who is remembered as something of a saint.

“His halo has become very, very polished because of his assassination," she explains, "but in his own time some of these decisions that he made were not seen positively as we see them today, and that’s what she really talks about.”

Lincoln could, for example, be indecisive.  He spoke disparagingly of African-Americans, never contemplated full citizenship for native Americans and could not relate to powerful women.

“One of the most interesting myths that you hear all the time is about Harriet Beecher Stowe meeting Lincoln, and Lincoln saying to her, ‘Oh you’re the little lady who brought about this big war.’ The story was written down later by her brother as he tried to sort of aggrandize her, but according to Harriet Beecher Stowe herself and others who were there, it didn’t happen," Brown says. " He didn’t even ask her to sit down.  He was, in fact, really rude to her.”

And Elizabeth Pryor documents just how uncomfortable Lincoln could be with people.  In his own time, she found prominent citizens who considered him vulgar and despotic.

“She never doubts for a moment that he was really bright, but it’s often very hard for a very bright child to fit in socially, and so he would tend to tell stories and to tell jokes.  He also was sort of a bully and liked to beat people up, because he apparently was physically very, very strong,” Brown says.

Lincoln often claimed the moral high ground and spoke of democratic ideals, but his actions were sometimes more about politics and compromise. Brown says Pryor knew her book would be controversial.

“She used to say, ‘When this book is published, I’m going to go into exile.’” 

Beverly Brown made sure her late sister's book was published after a car crash in Richmond took historian Elizabeth Pryor's life.

She feared Elizabeth would end up on her couch in London, but that didn’t happen.  Instead, Beverly got shocking news early one morning in April of 2015.  Her sister had been killed in a car crash, leaving Brown to put finishing touches on the book.  As an art historian, it was a fitting role for her – finding photos, etchings and drawings to illustrate a fresh new look at Lincoln.  One of those depicts an astonishing story never before told.  It happened in front of the White House – in a tent around a flag pole.  As a military band played, Mr. Lincoln was called to raise the flag.

“The war is starting, and he goes out to raise the flag and you can tell from the picture that the teeny little hole at the top of the tent is never going to be big enough to get the flag through," Brown explains. "It ripped the stars and the stripes apart as it went up through the hole. Of course each star is a state, and what could be worse when states are rapidly leaving than the President rips the flag apart?  I mean it would have been such an incredible symbolic thing, and the newspapers didn’t report it.”

But several invited guests recalled the fiasco in their diaries.

Today, the New York Times calls Six Encounters with Lincoln a fascinating read that confronts us with startlingly relevant questions.  Beverly Brown agrees:

“The book really is about democracy and its demons, and it’s about demons that unfortunately, are still there today.  The check and balance system that we hope works was put in place by Founding Fathers who wanted to slow things down.  They didn’t want the executive branch to tweet shall we say.”

Pryor had no children, no nieces, nephews, aunts or uncles. She willed half of her estate to the library of Congress and the other half to the Virginia Historical Society. 

“She did!  Not to her loving sister who finished her book for her,” Beverly Brown says with a rueful smile.

But Elizabeth left all of her furnishings – a house full of books and art – to Beverly who is now buying the place from the historical society so she can keep her sister’s treasures in the city she loved.