Book Marks: A. Lincoln With Compass and Chain by Adin Baber

A 186Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Title: A. Lincoln With Compass and Chain
Author: Adin Baber
Specs: Hardback, well illustrated, 139 Pages, $50.00 Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Association

Abraham Lincoln has long been esteemed as a hero whose character exuded probity, hard work and ambition. Today, virtue and success in business, and especially in politics, seem to be contradictory. Today’s newspapers commonly carry background pieces on the skeletons rattling around in the closets of corporate leaders and presidents. But despite a legion of biographers and historians who scrutinize the lives of America’s heroes in search of a titillating morsel to corrupt their legacies, Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt (the four on Mount Rushmore) still hold up well in the public eye, and we continue to love them for the examples they set in life.

The three surveyors on Mount Rushmore are honored among modern surveyors as humble men whose early success in surveying served them as a foundation to greater matters in their lives and the country’s history. What American, and particularly what surveyor, could not help but be drawn to these men and want to know more about them than is found in commonly available books? Of course we want to learn of their major struggles and successes, but also appealing are their accomplishments in the field with compass and chain. After all, it is often written that Washington’s understanding of terrain, learned as a surveyor, contributed significantly to his abilities as a general. Jefferson’s familiarity with measurement and layout caused him to be a better architect. And Lincoln’s years of surveying contributed to his success as a real estate and title lawyer for the railroads.

I was therefore thrilled to learn that the Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Association was going to republish a book on Lincoln’s life as a surveyor, one that I had never heard of. I was even more pleased to hear it was written by a surveyor. I usually enjoy books on surveying or surveyors written by surveyors because regardless of the quality of the writing, the level of understanding of surveying and analysis is often very high. Additionally, many surveyors are very good researchers and generally bring material to our attention that is omitted from mainstream histories.

Written by Adin Baber (1892-1974) and originally published in 1968, A. Lincoln with Compass and Chain was reissued in 2002 by the Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Association for the enjoyment of interested readers and as a fund-raiser for a statue of Lincoln. Bob Church, Executive Director of the association, contributed a few general but helpful notes for the updated edition.

The book has much useful and interesting information about Lincoln’s surveys, most of which appears to have been gathered in the public land records. Included are typed field notes, original plat maps and Baber’s copies of some of Lincoln’s original notes. In some of the more entertaining parts of the book the author describes how he retraced some of the Lincoln surveys with the great man’s own equipment. The overexposed photographs from the 60s are a nice touch to the book and provide a real feel for the author’s project. I smiled at seeing a photo of our surveying colleague, the late R. Ben Buckner, who was a member of a group of college students that assisted Baber.

The illustrations are one of the book’s strong points, although they raise a few issues. The photographs of Lincoln’s outfit, and some of the illustrations done by Lloyd Ostendorf, show a nail set in the top of the Jacob staff to which the chain could be attached. It seemed to me that this would be an odd way to chain, and an even odder way to determine direction with the compass. Was this the practice in Illinois at the time, I wondered? If so, how in the world did they ever get where they were pointed?

What is missing from the book is adequate technical information. The book could have greatly benefitted from the input of an expert in Illinois survey practice during the first half of the 1800s, a writer who could explain some of Mr. Baber’s comments and who could have insert facts in place of Baber’s many speculations. For example, Baber states "exact measurements are unimportant" and that he had occasionally used wire or twine to do his surveys, a statement that begs explanation. Baber also states that chains were checked with rulers, leaving the reader to wonder `For what reason–to assure measurements were correct to the nearest whole foot?’

It is well documented that Abraham Lincoln borrowed books, studied hard, paid attention, learned and advanced, and Baber is hardly the first biographer to so become taken with his subject that he loses his objectivity. He describes how Lincoln was sought by the County Surveyor to be his assistant, despite his lack of experience, because even as a young man Lincoln had a reputation as a good worker. What spoils it for me is that Baber mixes in his comments on how the people loved Lincoln and wanted to do things for the young man. The sign painter painted his range poles as a favor. Baber speculates or "trusts" that the landlady even made Lincoln gingerbread on his birthday. Perhaps true, but a bit heavy on adoration.

Mixed in with the Lincoln biographical material are long-winded and generous thank-yous to the people who helped Baber with the project, photographs of everyone, genealogies of people not directly related to the story at hand and even photographs of the commander of an aircraft carrier. Quite a mix, but for me, it was like searching for the blueberries in a bowl of oatmeal.

Baber immodestly states in the introduction that his intent in writing the book was to create the definitive dissertation on the subject of Lincoln as a surveyor. Although most serious students of history would probably concede that A. Lincoln with Compass and Chain falls far short of that worthy goal, it does contain some interesting information on Lincoln as surveyor. Also, it’s nice to know that a portion of the purchase price goes to support a worthy cause.

Patrick Toscano is the City Surveyor for the City of New Britain, Connecticut. He has taught surveying classes since 1988, and is an adjunct faculty member at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, and at Capital Community College in Hartford.

A 186Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE