Lincoln Memorial
What is Lincoln's Legacy?

February 12, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, a man who can arguably be called one of the most important men in the history of the nation. Historians have debated his wisdom, his politics and his intentions for more than a century. But what, in essence, is the legacy Lincoln left behind? Those close to Illinois Wesleyan University offer their insights.

"Without Lincoln, the Civil War would have ended the American experiment on a rather sad note," said Robert S. Eckley, president of Illinois Wesleyan from 1968 to 1986.  Eckley, who served as president of the Abraham Lincoln Association and was honored with their Logan Hay Medal in 2007, is completing a book on Bloomington attorney and Lincoln friend Leonard Swett. "Lincoln was a master politician and strategist. He held us together as a nation and started an emancipation that has not been carried through to finality even to this day, but we are getting closer," he said.

Lincoln's efforts as the Great Emancipator have a direct effect on current lives and politics, said Professor Robert Bray, Illinois Wesleyan's R. Forrest Colwell Professor of English. "I can give you Lincoln's legacy in one word — Obama," said Bray, who co-wrote the play Lincoln's in Town! , based upon Lincoln's famous "lost speech" given in Bloomington.  "Lincoln and his Congress started the road to civil rights, which culminated in the election last November of Barack Obama."

Robert S. Eckley

Robert S. Eckley

Bray has studied Lincoln for years. He is currently completing his work Reading with Lincoln, which examines books that Lincoln read and their influence on him.  Bray's 2005 book, Peter Cartwright, Legendary Frontier Preacher (University of Illinois Press), explored the dynamic relationship between Illinois Wesleyan founder Cartwright and Lincoln, who were political rivals for the House of Representative in 1846.

Robert Bray

Robert Bray

Cartwright is one of several Illinois Wesleyan founders who can claim Lincoln ties. Linus Graves and William H. Holmes both knew Lincoln when he was a circuit lawyer who came often to argue cases in Bloomington. In the 1850s, it was Illinois Wesleyan Board of Trustees member Judge David Davis whom historians have attributed with helping Lincoln secure the Republican nomination for President.

During his studies, Bray said he realized the change Lincoln brought about could be understood not only by reading his speeches, but also by observing who watched him speak. "The last speech that Lincoln gave had two important people in the audience — one was John Wilkes Booth and the other was Frederick Douglass," said Bray. "Booth could be said to embody all that Lincoln fought against, while Douglass was the inspiration of all he hoped." Booth would assassinate Lincoln soon after the speech, while Douglass would continue his work for equality for decades.

Miller Davis Building

The Miller Davis Building in downtown Bloomington, where Abraham Lincoln practiced as a circuit lawyer.

It is more than Lincoln's work on emancipation that constitutes his legacy, said Professor of Political Science James Simeone. The President had the ability to rally people of completely different backgrounds to the same cause. "Lincoln could synthesize the disparate elements of political culture and ideology," said Simeone, who noted Lincoln's Republican Party was made up of conservative former Whigs and radical abolitionists. "When the abolitionists passed a bill for emancipation in 1862, Lincoln actually vetoed it," he said. "The Great Emancipator vetoes emancipation. Why? Because he understands the old-time Whigs who believe that Congress does not have the authority to free the slaves."

Lincoln instead decreed emancipation as a war act, believing he was within the law as Commander-in-chief to free the slaves. "This is a great example of the balancing act Lincoln could maintain," said Simeone. "How do you bring high-minded former Whigs — who worship at the altar of the Constitution — to agree with radical abolitionists — who say the Constitution isn't worth the paper it's written on? You do it with someone like Lincoln."

James Simeone

James Simeone

Lincoln's fame as a leader carries far beyond the United States. "One of my bosses was traveling in a remote area of China," said Illinois University alumnae Erika Holst. "When he would meet people, they knew very little English, but one man said, "Ah, America. Abraham Lincoln!' His impact continues to resonate and reach out to others in places you would least expect it."

For Holst, who works with documents from the fallen President every day as a research associate for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., Lincoln represents inspiration. "He is a beacon that people have looked to for more than a century," she said. Holst keeps her favorite Lincoln quote on her desk at the library: "'While [your answer] might embrace the practical question mentioned, [it] might also be the nest in which forty other troublesome questions would be hatched. I would rather meet them as they come, than before they come, trusting that some of them may not come at all,'" said Holst, reading a letter from Lincoln. "I think the quote captures Lincoln, facing the troubles as they come," she added.

Master politician, emancipator, visionary — the name of Lincoln means many things to many people. Perhaps his legacy is the idea of something better. "I think his legacy will live as long as the nation lives," said Bray, "which I hope will be as long as humans have stewardship over this planet."

Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960