The country’s preeminent Abraham Lincoln scholar said Sunday during a visit to Centre College the 16th president had a complicated relationship with his home state.
Harold Holzer spoke at Centre College’s opening convocation Sunday night prior to the unveiling of a new statue of Lincoln, a Kentucky native, in front of the school library.
After Holzer signed some copies of his most recent book, “Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context and Memory,” he spoke briefly to a reporter about Lincoln the Kentuckian, the student and the debater.
Since the 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, every corner of the tri-state area where he was born (Kentucky), grew up (Indiana) and spent most of his adult life (Illinois) has laid some claim to his legacy.
Lincoln was born in what is now Larue County, Ky., and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was also from the state.
As the statue suggests, Centre graduate John Todd Stuart helped nudge Lincoln toward his career in law.
However, Holzer said Lincoln, a shrewd politician, had an uncomfortable political relationship with his birthplace.
Lincoln’s views on slavery didn’t endear him to Kentucky voters, making him hesitant to return once he reached national prominence.
Holzer said Lincoln half-joked he might be lynched if he returned to Kentucky after he failed to get votes here while the Union fractured in 1860.
By the 1864 campaign, the Civil War was grinding on and there was even less hope of votes or a reconciliation.
Despite Lincoln’s trepidation, Holzer said he often wished he could appeal to Kentucky voters.
“He wanted very much to be able to speak to the people of Kentucky,” Holzer said.
Holzer recalled what is probably the most famous quote from Lincoln about Kentucky, from an address Lincoln intended to deliver in Kentucky after winning the 1860 election: “Who amongst you would not die by the proposition, that your candidate, being elected, should be inaugurated, solely on the conditions of the constitution, and laws, or not at all? What Kentuckian worthy of his birthplace, would not do this? Gentlemen, I too am a Kentuckian.”
Although 150 years ago he didn’t know if he could come home again, a statue of Lincoln now stands facing Crounse Hall, home to Centre’s library.
The statue shows Lincoln as he was just embarking on his study of the law.
The way he turned out has been well publicized, but Lincoln may have had as much in common with the major-switching dreamer as the pre-professional striver at a certain point in his life.
At the same age many Centre students are preparing to graduate, Holzer said the “Great Emancipator” didn’t have a clue where he was headed.
“He was still with his parents, making $1 a day and turning his money over to his father,” Holzer said.
“He was really still adrift. Even when he was 22, he said he was like a piece of driftwood floating by.”
Lack of direction during his early adulthood notwithstanding, Lincoln was an insatiable bookworm who read everything he could get his hands on and clearly a formidable speaker.
Shortly before he became a lawyer, his early political ambitions also were being realized when he was elected to the Illinois Legislature in 1834.
More than 20 years later, Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas during his second unsuccessful run as the Whig candidate for U.S. Senate became legendary.
The format of 60 minutes for one candidate, 90 minutes for the opponent, and a 30-minute rebuttal on one subject is something most modern politicians have never experienced.
So how would Lincoln fare in the type of made-for-television debate that will happen at Centre this fall?
“Abraham Lincoln could barely speak his name in a minute,” Holzer said, referencing a time when Lincoln sent a proxy to deliver a speech in Springfield, Ill., and included instructions to speak extremely slowly.
Like his friend Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House and Republican presidential candidate, Holzer would like to see the candidates hold forth on the issues for longer periods of time.
The hours of talking did require Lincoln’s voice, as much as his mind, to be a powerful instrument.
“You had to have pipes,” Holzer said. “I think both (Obama and Romney) have that.”