Linkin’ Lincoln to Galesburg


by Terry Hogan


It’s a big birthday year for Lincoln, but I’m not sure he is paying much attention to it.  Nevertheless, many others are.  Many states, counties, and cities and towns are touting their ties to Lincoln.  I suppose Galesburg can do no less.  So here is my effort toward Linkin’ Lincoln to Galesburg.


The obvious connection of Lincoln to Galesburg is the 5th Lincoln and Douglas debate held at Old Main on the Knox College campus on October 7, 1858.  A bronze memorial marks the site where in 1858, Lincoln and Douglas met and jousted for who was best suited to serve Illinois in the Senate. There were an estimated 10,000 spectators to watch and listen to history being made. The voters decided it was Douglas.  But the debates, aided by the high technology of the telegraph, provided nearly instantaneous reporting to newspapers around America.  The debates and the telegraph provided national exposure for Abraham Lincoln.  He would have to wait two more years for his election to come.


Lincoln was also awarded a honorary doctorate degree by Knox College in 1860. It was the first such award given by Knox. Since then, Presidents Clinton and Obama have also received honorary degrees from Knox. As I recall, it has been reported that it was Lincoln’s first educational degree of any type.    Lincoln had ties with some local Galesburg “movers and shakers.”  Clark E. Carr knew Lincoln well.  Newton Bateman, a former Knox College president (1875-1893) was a personal friend of Lincoln and was known to help review some of Lincoln’s drafts before he became president. 


Although Orville Browning was a well-known local attorney from Quincy, Browning had ties to Knox College.  He was also an early advisor to Lincoln, mostly on political issues. (See “Orville H. Browning”, T. Hogan, Columns, Backtracking).  He remained an informal advisor to Lincoln until they split over the issue of slavery while Lincoln was in the White House.  It may be that Browning played an important role in promoting the honorary degree from Knox for Lincoln.


While Galesburg was not part of the circuit that Lincoln rode when he was a young struggling Illinois lawyer, Lincoln did represent some local landowners before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Although the available record appears to strongly suggest he “made a hash of it”.  Lincoln failed to show up at the oral argument before the court and failed to file a written brief.  Despite this double failure, the local land owners lost the court case on a close vote of 5 to 4.  One could speculate that a different outcome might have occurred if Lincoln had done his job (See “Lincoln, a ‘No Show’ at the Supreme Court” T. Hogan, Columns, Backtracking).



One of my favorite Lincoln-Galesburg tie-in stories involves my great, great, great uncle, Moses Ocean (MO) Williamson.  MO Williamson was the treasurer of the State of Illinois when a new Lincoln burial site was under construction.  MO was selected as one of a handful of men to view Lincoln’s remains before he was buried at his new tomb. This confirmation of Lincoln’s remains was done primarily to calm the public’s concern and still the rumors that Lincoln’s body had been stolen.  A foiled attempt had been made, however poorly conceived and executed that it was.  Perhaps in the realm of “it’s a small world”, Abe Lincoln’s son, Robert Lincoln strongly opposed opening of the coffin but it was done anyway.  This did not, however, dissuade Robert Lincoln, as President of the Pullman Company (railroad cars), granting MO Williamson a “pass” for riding in the Pullman cars, while MO was treasurer of Illinois. 


More recently, Knox College has become a recognized source of scholarly information about Lincoln. The Lincoln Study Center, co-directed by Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis has added to the wealth of knowledge of Lincoln. This takes the form both in the archival information held by Knox College and by the scholarly works published by Wilson and Davis.


There is also a touch of irony that I offer up on the next linkage to Galesburg – Carl Sandburg.  One needs only to read Sandburg’s autobiography, “Always the Young Strangers” to understand that Lincoln’s presence at Knox College for the Great Debate influenced Sandburg’s decision to become a Lincoln Scholar.  Sandburg, Galesburg born and raised, published a six volume biography of Lincoln.  The first two volumes were “The Prairie Years”. The next four volumes were “The War Years”.  Sandburg won a Pulitzer Prize for his Lincoln work.   


So, where is the irony that I mentioned?  Carl Sandburg’s birthplace (and also his burial site) is closed to the public.  It is truly a sad commentary that Illinois, “The Land of Lincoln” can’t scratch up enough money to have Lincoln’s most famous biographer’s birthplace open during Lincoln’s 200th Birthday year.   A January 2007 Illinois news release notes the following about the 2009 Lincoln’s Birthday significance:


“The Illinois Lincoln Bicentennial Commission serves to promote a deeper knowledge, understanding and engagement in the life and times of Abraham Lincoln through conferences, publications, preservation of Lincoln sites, and local, state-wide and national observances commemorating Abraham Lincoln's birthday on February 12, 2009.”   (Jan. 12, 2007 News Release:Planning moves forward to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday in 2009”


I guess that doesn’t include Lincoln’s most famous biographer.