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James Horton
James Horton

Historian James O. Horton Speaks of Lincoln and the American Contradiction

February 18, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – As we celebrate the iconic Abraham Lincoln during the month of his 200th birthday, it can be difficult to imagine the monumental task he faced eliminating slavery in America.

“It was not easy to be Abraham Lincoln, especially not easy to be Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States in the mid-1800s,” said James O. Horton. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated historian delivered an address titled, “Abraham Lincoln: Slavery and the Civil War” for Illinois Wesleyan University’s annual Founders’ Day Convocation in Westbrook Auditorium. Hear his address

“Slavery is an old institution, around more than 150 years before there was a ‘United States,’” said Horton, an historian emeritus with the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. “Slavery and race have been part of America from its beginning.”

Horton took the audience in Presser Hall on a tour of American history, reminding them of the irony of a nation that proclaimed its revolution on the grounds of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “Liberty,” said Horton slowly. “Even people of the time recognized this as a contradiction – the American Contradiction – between what Americans said and what Americans did.”

Economics fostered that contradiction, as cotton grew to be the nation’s largest export by the 1840s. “There was big money to be made in cotton, and that money was made on plantations in the south and southwest part of the nation,” said Horton. “Do you realize that for a period of time along a narrow stretch of the Mississippi River, there were more millionaires than in the entire rest of the country combined?”

With the success of cotton, slaveholders gained more than money. “Then, as now, if you have economic power, it often translates into political power,” he said. “You have to remember there were 72 years between George Washington and Lincoln, and in that time slaveholders held the office of President for all but 12 of those years, and none of those non-slaveholders were re-elected for a second term.” 

Horton Book Cover

Horton relayed the approach of 18th and 19th century lawmakers, adopting a theme of compromise to navigate their way through the growing adversity between slave and free states. Yet with each resolution, such as the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, tension only mounted, often erupting into violence between slave catchers and militant abolitionists. It was into this political minefield that Lincoln became president, securing a mere 39.9 percent, said Horton. “One has to wonder, has to ask, would anyone want to be President at this time?” he asked.

An author of numerous books on slavery in the United States, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Protest, and Community Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860 (Oxford University Press, 1997), Horton responded to the revisionist history movement of the 1960s that pulls from Lincoln’s campaign debates against Stephen Douglas. “Lincoln understood the politics of the day,” said Horton, who read parts of Lincoln’s debate where he asserted he had “no belief in racial equality.” “Lincoln could have said, ‘yes, I believe in racial equality,’ and then walked off the podium and went home. He knew the climate of the day. He would have had no chance of winning an election.”

Horton instead looked to Lincoln’s friendship with former slave Frederick Douglass, whom Lincoln invited to the White House after his second inauguration. “After they finally let him in the door – because this is an black man trying to get into the White House – Lincoln came up to Douglass and asked him what he thought of the speech, saying, ‘There is no man in America whose opinion I have greater respect for,’” said Horton. “This is 1864. You might want to think about that, a black man, a former slave, being acknowledged by the President of the United States as a personal friend.”

Founders Gate
Illinois Wesleyan University Founders' Gate

Respect for Lincoln transcends America, said Horton, who has lectured in many countries around the globe and helped establish American Studies programs in The Netherlands and Germany. “He made a tremendous impact, not just in his home state of Illinois, or his home country, but in places all over the world,” he said.

Founders’ Day honors the 30 founders who signed the charter for the University in 1850. University President Richard F. Wilson took a moment to look back at the founders, and their connection to Abraham Lincoln. “Bloomington is often referred to as Lincoln’s second home,” said Wilson, who noted Lincoln was friend of University founder Kersey Fell, and a political rival of fellow founder Peter Cartwright. “Each year at this Convocation we celebrate founders like Cartwright and Fell, and those who have contributed throughout our history to the development and character of Illinois Wesleyan.”

Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960