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It was not so much that the students of Newtown, Conn., have suffered enough, which heaven knows they have— and their parents, too. But back in late July, Alex Trebek, of all people, who should know better, somehow managed to disoblige the much-tried community—on national television, yet—and literally place the Lincoln legacy in “jeopardy” in the bargain.

If all this sounds like a case of mixed metaphors that go in one era and out the other, here is a refresher course on how this “only on TV” saga unfolded. The show: Jeopardy!—the kids’ week version. The airdate: the tail end of July 2013. The final category: “Famous Documents.” The clue: “The 1863 document Abraham Lincoln said was ‘a fit and necessary war measure.’”

Twelve-year-old Newtown eighth-grader Thomas Hurley III had amassed $9,600 in winnings at that point, and though he lagged far behind one of his competitors going into that final round, he felt pretty secure about hauling home a nice down payment on his college education. He had studied American history avidly enough to know the answer, and he knew precisely how to put it in the form of a question, as this ageless quiz show requires. Thomas proceeded to write it out thusly: “What is the Emanciptation Proclamation.”

But when Jeopardy!’s well-preserved, by-the-book host Alex Trebek, who I think may have been on hand for the publication of Lincoln’s original document, read and overdramatically stumbled over young Thomas’ faulty spelling, he solemnly ruled that the reply was incorrect. The boy not only failed to tack onto his winnings the $3,000 he had confidentially wagered on himself, that amount was deducted from his total. After Trebek asked the judges to validate his “Henry Higgins the grinch” ruling (no surprise: they did), he unctuously told the TV audience that the experts agreed that Hurley deserved no margin of error—not even if that error was a mere extra “t.”

When Trebek began hosting Jeopardy!, the Internet was at best a dream, so he was surely unprepared for the firestorm that followed. First, young Mr. Hurley’s hometown Danbury Times did a story on the heist of his prize money, in which the mature-beyond-his-years victim struck just the right tone: “I was pretty upset that I was cheated out of the final ‘Jeopardy’ question,” he mildly admitted. “It was just a spelling error.” The story went viral.

In response to which the high-minded producers of the show, as if eager to continue this unwinnable debate with a 12-year-old, insisted, “If ‘Jeopardy!’ were to give credit for an incorrect response (however minor), the show would effectively penalize the other players.” And no doubt the world would stop spinning on its axis.

Naturally, cyberspace lit up with angry comments. “Bad form, ‘Jeopardy,’” lectured one typical post. “Every game show has bad calls [but] this takes the cake.” By the first week of August, Facebook featured more than 400 negative posts. “Alex didn’t need to insult the kid’s spelling,” complained one, “and many people feel that Thomas is owed an apology.”

None ever came, of course. But can anyone doubt that one of the first statements of regret would have come from the big-hearted, malice-toward-none man himself? Except that Abraham Lincoln would have spelled it “appology,” as he did in documents he wrote in 1836, 1850, 1851, 1856, 1858, 1859 and 1863—the last being the year he signed the Emancipation Proclamation itself.

You see, Mr. Trebek, Lincoln was probably a far worse speller than Thomas Hurley III, and no one ever told him that Emancipation wouldn’t count because he “anihilated” the rules of the spelling book. To Lincoln, “literal” was “litteral,” “neighbors” were “neihbors,” “visitors” were “visiters,” “jealousies” were “jealosies,” and people in Portugal spoke “portaguse”— now there’s a Jeopardy! question waiting to be asked! And Lincoln wrote down all of these “inacurecies” when he was in his 30s, 40s and 50s—not when he was 12! Lincoln could never even spell the word “inaugural”—he constantly wrote it as “inaugeral”—even a few days after delivering the most sublime inaugural address in history.

Check it out. Lincoln’s bad spelling habits live on within the 10 volumes of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, and in a wonderful, long-forgotten article Eastern Illinois College professor Charles H. Coleman wrote for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society back in the 1950s. Coleman created a veritable “almanic” of Lincolnian spelling quirks for that story. The title ought to be branded on Alex Trebek’s cue cards: “Spelling Bothered Lincoln, Too.”

Were Trebek and the Jeopardy! crowd guilty of “hypocracy” or just plain “demnagougeism?” in this? One thing they certainly communicated: “discourgement.” In an age in which parents and teachers can hardly get their kids to read his tory, much less spell it right, the top-rated quiz show managed to inhibit every aspirational kid who tries to rise above the horrific abbreviations in “u r hear” twitter jargon and show that he knows something substantive.

Alex Trebek should now “graceously” acknowledge his “perculiar” lapse of judgment, do something to arrest Hurley’s “melancholly” (not to mention my own) and admit on “ballance” the “impriety” of his harsh call. It would be the “inteligent” thing to do.

The Great Emancipator himself misspelled “emancipation.” Four years before he issued his greatest decree, he wrote it as “immancipation.” Good thing Trebek was not on hand (or not yet old enough) to rule the subsequent document inadmissible. Imagine the disappointment among the folks Lincoln spelled “Affrican” Americans.

The “paralels” are obvious, and far more important than a mere TV kerfuffle over spelling. Learning should be celebrated, not mocked. Alex, don’t be so “litteral.” Give the kid a break, and give history a shot in the arm, not a “hinderance.” Or the next final Jeopardy! question might be: “Television show that set history education back by putting form over substance.” Time for adults, on and off screen, to be encouragers—not “prossecutors.”


Historian Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.