Author: Lincoln had close ties to founding of Illinois State University

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Tom Emery

  • Illinois State University was founded a training school for teachers in 1857
  • Classes for the university were first held at Major’s Hall where Lincoln delivered his "Lost Speech"
  • Emery’s new book is the first to examine in depth Lincoln’s ties to Illinois State University
Carl Kasten

Abraham Lincoln had numerous and important ties to the founding of Illinois State University, the latest book from Carlinville historian Tom Emery shows.

Without Lincoln’s hand in the process, Emery said, the university, set up as a training school for teachers in 1857, might not have been located in Bloomington.

The university, Emery added, was one more association the 16th president had with Bloomington, a city key in Lincoln’s political ascension.

"Abraham Lincoln and the Heritage of Illinois State University" was the brainchild of Carl Kasten, a 1966 graduate of ISU, a retired civil litigation attorney from Carlinville and a former chair of the university’s board of trustees. Kasten wrote the book’s Foreword and Afterword.

Net proceeds from the self-published book will benefit the ISU scholarship fund and the university’s pre-law fund.

Emery pointed out that Lincoln served as counsel to the state’s nascent Board of Education, which oversaw Illinois State Normal University, as it was called in its early days. Lincoln wrote the guaranty to secure funding for the university and in doing so ensured that it would be located in Bloomington and then Normal, then known as North Bloomington.

Many of the early financial backers of Illinois State were among Lincoln’s closest allies and friends, including David Davis, who managed Lincoln’s 1860 Presidential campaign, and Jesse Fell, a Bloomington businessman and philanthropist who helped introduce audiences on the East Coast to Lincoln.

"Had that (guaranty) not come through, it’s in all likelihood that the university would have been awarded to Peoria and would not be in Bloomington-Normal today," Emery said.

Emery suspected that it was Fell who recruited Lincoln to be the board of education’s attorney, though Lincoln’s brother-in-law, Ninian W. Edwards Jr. who was married to Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister, Elizabeth Porter Todd, was the board’s president.

"It seemed that Lincoln was a part of this as a favor to his political friends because we have no record of payment or compensation that he received," Emery said.

Probably no one had a greater impact on the early history of Illinois State Normal than Fell, Emery said. A confidant of Lincoln’s, Fell, Emery added, "was the one who wanted to create this institution of moral intellectual learning that he saw would better his living area of North Bloomington, which is now Normal. He saw the intellectual advantages, social advantages and certainly the economic advantages of having an important university there. His spirit just permeates the early years of Illinois State Normal."

Fell Hall and Fell Arboretum on the modern-day campus attest to his far reach, Emery said.

Illinois State University held its first class at Major’s Hall — named for William Major, a church elder — in downtown Bloomington on Oct. 5, 1857. The three-story building, which had an auditorium on the top floor, served the university’s temporary needs until 1860 when a more permanent building was completed in what is now known as Normal.

In 1856, Lincoln delivered his famous "Lost Speech" at the Republican state convention at Major’s Hall. It was, Emery said, "one of Lincoln’s strongest statements against slavery." 

According to a 1967 book by Elwell Crissey, Lincoln was very much out of character in the speech. It earned the name the "Lost Speech," Emery said, because many members of the state’s top press corps, didn’t think to take notes.

The speech catapulted Lincoln’s state and national profile, Emery said.

"Lincoln wasn’t a household name (at that time), even in Illinois," he said. "He had lost a U.S. Senate race (in 1855) and several national appointments had eluded him. It was kind of a transitional time in Lincoln’s life."

Bloomington and McLean County were no stranger to Lincoln because they were on the Eighth Judicial Circuit which he rode twice a year.

"In my view, behind Springfield, Bloomington had more of an impact on Lincoln’s pre-presidency and political rise than any community in Illinois," Emery said.

Lincoln historian and author Wayne C. Temple of Springfield agreed.

"It was one of the most important places (to Lincoln)," Temple said. "Bloomington was in the middle of everything. He lectured up there. It was not only business, but pleasure as well. Lincoln had a lot of friends there."

Lincoln had other connections to Illinois State Normal, including Louis Clover, a Springfield Episcopal clergyman and faculty member whose son, Eugene, eloped with Mary Todd Lincoln’s niece, Elizabeth Edwards, and William Saunders, designer of the university’s quad who would go on to design Oak Ridge Cemetery and Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Emery included a chapter in the book about the short-lived Illinois State University in Springfield with which Lincoln also had a connection, though it was a separate institution.

Emery said he worked closely with ISU senior archivist, April Anderson-Zorn. And while there have been other histories written on the university, this is the first devoted to the Lincoln connection.

"I’ve never enjoyed a historical project as much as this one," Emery said. "It was just so much fun from start to finish."

Temple said the book is "a worthwhile chapter" in terms of Lincoln scholarship.

"There’s a lot of new information in the book," Temple said. "(Emery) got into the actual bond records. It’s new ground, yes. I told him when he finished, ‘You’ve added good to the Lincoln story.’"

"Abraham Lincoln and the Heritage of Illinois State University" is available at Books on the Square (427 E. Washington St. and 153 E. Jackson St., Virden), Our Town Books (64 East Central Park Plaza, Jacksonville) and Cherry Tree Gifts and Souvenirs (236 East Side Square, Carlinville) or through Carl Kasten, 1075 West Main, Carlinville, IL 62626, by calling 217-854-3616 or by e-mailing carlkasten@frontiernet.net.

Contact Steven Spearie: 622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com, twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.

via The State Journal-Register

February 8, 2021 at 08:53PM

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