Abraham Lincoln’s rise to the nation’s most popular president and a representation of America worldwide was explored Thursday during a symposium at Tusculum College.
“Lincoln’s meaning has evolved and grown from generation to generation,” said Thomas Mackie, one of the presenters. “Each generation draws on a different portion. He is recognized as the quintessential American figure.”
Three presenters shared their expertise about the Lincoln legacy and the 16th president’s connections with William Seward and Carl Sandburg during the symposium, hosted by the Museums of Tusculum College. About 75 people attended the event including a group of eighth grade students in the Greene County School System’s gifted program.
Mackie, director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum at Lincoln Memorial University, said that although the 16th president’s legacy is prevalent in American culture, the man himself remains a “great enigma” one of the reasons he remains so popular.
He described the growth of the Lincoln myth, but cautioned the audience to not interpret his use of the word myth as an untruth but as something that is true and big in the culture.
After Lincoln’s death, memorials were held around the country, and those giving the eulogies were charged with giving meaning to his death and the tragedy of the Civil War, Mackie said. The Victorian cultural norms of the time also dictated that even Lincoln’s enemies had a duty to show respect to his passing.
The corporate memorial services for Lincoln saw the combination of religious and patriotic sentiments to create a civic religion that has been integral to the increasing of the Lincoln myth, Mackie continued.
At first, most of the commemorations of Lincoln focused on his role as the emancipator of the slaves. Scores of books were written about Lincoln in the decades after his death, and by the 1880s, sites associated with Lincoln became pilgrimage destinations. The meaning of some of these sites changed. For example, he said, Lincoln’s frontier beginnings were initially seen as a challenge he overcome but over time was considered the place that made him a great man.
Items Lincoln may have owned or even touched grew in value, and the number of collectors has resulted in no site or museum having a definitive collection, Mackie said.
Peter Wisbey, director of the William Seward House in New York, discussed the legacy of Seward and Lincoln. Seward was a well-known and popular politician, having served as governor of New York and as a U.S. Senator. In 1860, he was a favorite to win the Republican nomination for president, but was out-strategized by the up-and-coming senator from Illinois, Wisbey explained.
Despite his disappointment of losing the nomination, Seward campaigned for Lincoln. After his election, Lincoln appointed Seward as secretary of state. Writings by Seward’s son at the beginning of the presidency reveal that there was not a great deal of faith in the new president among the Sewards, Wisbey said.
However, in time, the president and secretary of state developed a strong friendship and relationship of trust, he continued. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the only other people in the room were Seward and his son, who was serving as his assistant.
Lincoln was known to almost daily visit the Seward home, which was near the White House, Wisbey said. The two men shared a love of reading and the theater.
The assassination of Lincoln has obscured an attempt on Seward’s life on the same night Lincoln was shot, he noted. After recovering from his serious stab wounds, Seward continued to serve as secretary of state in Andrew Johnson’s administration out of respect for Lincoln and to work to see his ideas for Reconstruction implemented.
Charles Byrd, a volunteer at the Carl Sandburg home in North Carolina, addressed the commonalities between Lincoln and Sandburg, who won a Pultizer Prize for his biography, “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years.”
Byrd, a retired school administrator who taught about Sandburg as an English instructor, said that both men shared humble beginnings, a great degree of self-education and were champions of the common man. Lincoln and Sandburg also shared a love of stories and humor.
Sandburg, who also won a Pultizer Prize for his poetry, was a lover of words and phrases, Byrd continued, and considered Lincoln’s writing and oratory as poetry although it was written as prose.
After the individual presentations, a lively panel discussion between the presenters and audience was moderated by Chris Small of the Lincoln Project, a locally well known first person impersonator of Lincoln.
A matter of debate was the reasons for Lincoln being consistently ranked in polls of historians as the president that has had the most impact on the nation and ranked in recent polls of the populace as the favorite president. Some of the responses included sympathy based on the trials of his presidency, admiration for his character, his leadership skills, his role in the emancipation of the slaves and his embodiment of the American ideal of “lifting yourself up by your boot straps to accomplish great success.”
Also discussed was the relevance of Lincoln in today’s society with answers ranging from his example of leadership in building consensus with those who disagreed with his ideas, his character and integrity and his rise to prominence from obscurity.
The Museums of Tusculum College administer the President Andrew Johnson Museum and Library and the Doak House Museum on campus. The Doak House Museum hosts thousands of school children from the region for a variety of educational programs related to the 19th century and CHARACTER COUNTS! The President Andrew Johnson Museum and Library houses a special collection of items relating to the 17th president, the college’s archives and volumes from the institution’s original library. The museums are also two of the 10 structures on the Tusculum campus on the National Register of Historic Places.
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