Plus: Dunkirk and Beyoncé |

July 20, 2017

By Lily Rothman

Abraham Lincoln possessed a mastery of the English language rivaled by few in history. But when it comes to one example of his eloquence — the so-called Bixby letter, a famous 1864 missive to a woman whose sons had been lost in the Civil War — historians have long questioned whether Lincoln deserved the credit, with many believing that his secretary John Hay in fact wrote the letter. With the original lost, chances were slim that the matter would ever be resolved.

This week, I talked to a forensic-linguistics researcher about how he and a team of colleagues tried to answer the question. They came up with a new way of analyzing the text that, despite the letter’s brevity, makes them confident that they’ve answered the question once and for all.

They’re presenting their findings at a conference next week but you can also click here to find out the answer to this century-old mystery.

Here’s more of the history that made news this week:

What to Know About the Miraculous True Story Behind Dunkirk

As Christopher Nolan's much-praised film hits theaters, here's what you need to know about the real history behind the battle and evacuation

Go Inside a 1967 Tour Bus as It Visits San Francisco During the Summer of Love

In this clip from a documentary about San Francisco's far-out summer, see what visitors to the Haight-Ashbury would have seen back then

Non-Citizens Used to Be Able to Vote in U.S. Elections

The Commission on Election Integrity may be meeting for the first time, but voter-fraud claims about immigrants have a long history

Space-Exploration Artifacts Are Worth So Much for a Reason

An auction of space-exploration artifacts is predicted to draw big money, even if many of the items look no more glamorous than garage junk

Beyoncé and Jay-Z Name Daughter After a 13th-Century Poet

Here's what to know about the history behind the name — and why it's appropriate for such a musical family


The cover of Time Magazine on July 25, 1969

July 20, 1969: Man on the Moon

“As Apollo 11 hurtled through the heavens to land two Americans on the moon, it seemed as if all mankind were kin. Whether in stilt-supported houses over the canals of Bangkok or by the azure swimming pools of Beverly Hills, families sat mesmerized before the flickering history unfolding on their television screens. Along London's Piccadilly and Tokyo's Ginza, crowds and traffic thinned as the launch began. In West Berlin, as in South Nyack, N.Y., there was a rare sense of camaraderie. Strangers on the street were united by the universal question: ‘How are they doing?’ It seemed, as Tennyson wrote more than a century ago, ‘One far-off divine event/To which the whole creation moves.’” (July 25, 1969)

Read the full story

July 20, 1962

Today in 1962: High Society

“The Old Guard still occupies its citadels in the big cities and small resorts. It still takes ‘old’ money and some kind of bloodlines to make Boston's Somerset Club, the Philadelphia Club or the St. Louis Country Club. But around such bastions flows a different and more stimulating social stream of people with more education and more to talk about, who want their friends to be intelligent, active and amusing (one of their favorite words).” (July 20, 1962)

Read the full story

July 20, 1981

Today in 1981: Sandra Day O’Connor

“Ronald Reagan lived up to a campaign pledge last week, and the nation cheered. At a hastily arranged television appearance in the White House press room, the President referred to his promise as a candidate that he would name a woman to the Supreme Court, explaining: ‘That is not to say I would appoint a woman merely to do so. That would not be fair to women, nor to future generations of all Americans whose lives are so deeply affected by decisions of the court. Rather, I pledged to appoint a woman who meets the very high standards I demand of all court appointees.’ So saying, he introduced his nominee to succeed retiring Associate Justice Potter Stewart as ‘a person for all seasons,’ with ‘unique qualities of temperament, fairness, intellectual capacity.’ She was Sandra Day O'Connor, 51, the first woman to serve as majority leader of a U.S. state legislature and, since 1979, a judge in the Arizona State Court of Appeals.” (July 20, 1981)

Read the full story


Drop a Pin At Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford speaks to a collector of political pinback buttons about how they are a “little snapshot of history.” (The photos on this one are great.)

Lawn-g History As the pink plastic lawn flamingo enters its seventh decade, Matthew Wills at JStor Daily provides an overview of scholarly work on how the kitschy American icon came to be.

Blow Up The Economist goes deep on volcanoes, with this look at how a 9th-century eruption in Iceland had world-changing consequences.

Scholarly Scandal Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed has put together a summary of an ongoing history controversy, involving a historian who has charged that her recent book has been the subject of a coordinated attack from other scholars.

Satirical 1700s A headline from the Onion to send you off with a laugh: “Historians Find Evidence of Nation’s Founding Lobbyists’ Campaign to Influence Constitution.”

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