Getting Lincoln To College

On the day in 1858 that Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen A. Douglas in the fifth of their great series of debates across Illinois, both candidates mounted a platform which had been hastily cobbled together and moved to the east side of Knox College’s ‘Old Main,’ in Galesburg, Illinois. Because of a quirk in the height of the platform, both candidates were helped onto the platform through a seven-foot-high window in ‘Old Main,’ leading Lincoln (who had never had more than a year’s worth of formal schooling) to wisecrack, “At last I’ve gone through college.”
The joke concealed the real mortification Lincoln felt as a lawyer at age forty-nine as he viewed the influx of a new generation of college-educated lawyers coming from back east. “Ah, that is what I have always regretted,” Lincoln told New York Herald reporter Stephen Fiske in 1861, “the want of a college education.” On the other hand, it might temper Lincoln’s enthusiasm somewhat to discover, in the midst of celebrating his 200th birthday, and in a year when President Obama has called so much attention to him, that he still is having trouble getting through college – or at least getting a course devoted to the study of his life and thought into college curriculums.


A troll through a bevy of course catalogues shows that, among other objects d’intelligence…

– No history department in any Ivy League university – Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, and even my own alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania – offers any course of study focused on Abraham Lincoln.
– Neither Howard University nor Morehouse College nor Spelman College – all of them historically-black institutions – offer any history course, seminar or colloquium on Abraham Lincoln.
– Even Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, another historically-black university, features no entry under its history courses which mentions Abraham Lincoln
– Nor, for that matter, does the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
– Nor does Knox College.
– Washington College, in Chestertown, Maryland, might be forgiven for not including a course on Lincoln in its history listings, but then again, it doesn’t have one on George Washington either.
– Washington and Lee University, which could be excused with even more reason from celebrating Lincoln since the Washingtons were among its founders and Robert E. Lee was its president, has no course on Lincoln in the history department, but does have one in political science on ‘Abraham Lincoln’s Statesmanship.’

Whether a college or university actually wraps a course around Abraham Lincoln seems very much to be a matter of the initiative of the individual faculty member with an interest in Lincoln.

– Brooks Simpson, who is probably best-known for his erudite books on Ulysses S. Grant, teaches a senior research seminar on Lincoln at Arizona State University
– So do Jennifer Weber at the University of Kansas (‘Lincoln and His Times’), Brian Dirck at Anderson University (‘Abraham Lincoln’s America’),Thomas Turner at Bridgewater State University (a senior seminar, ‘Abraham Lincoln’), Joseph Fornieri (Rochester Institute of Technology), Stewart Winger (Illinois State University), Drew McCoy (Clark University), Vernon Burton (Coastal Carolina University), Ron J. Keller (Lincoln College, appropriately enough, in Lincoln, Illinois), and even, at quite a distance, Jorg Nagler of the Friedrich-Schiller-Universit

Allen C. Guelzo

Allen Carl Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College.

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