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Archives celebrates Abe Lincoln

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November 13, 2009

<i>PHOTO BY Fizz Ahmad/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Fizz Ahmad/The Hoot

The annual Lillian L. Rolde Memorial Lecture series continued Monday with a lecture delivered by Professor John Burt (ENG) entitled, “Abraham Lincoln and the ‘Dred Scott’ Decision.”

The Farber Library’s University Archives and Special Collections Department hosted the event, which included an exhibit from the collections on the varying historical depictions of Lincoln.

“The goal of the Rolde lecture is to contextualize specific works of Special Collections for the purposes of learning,” department member Sarah Shoemaker said.

The lecture focused on Lincoln’s response to the Dread Scott Supreme Court Decision, which occurred before he ascended to the presidency and its importance in the modern United States.

Shoemaker said the Dred Scott Decision is especially important “for a university named for a revered Supreme Court justice itself.”

Burt’s lecture addressed some technicalities and background of the case and offered a look into the mind of the then-younger Lincoln, and was aided by the Special Collections’ historical organization of pictures and other representations of the president.

Prefaced with the nation’s founding document, Burt’s lecture proceeded with a review of Lincoln’s debates on slavery, especially after a famous (and later overturned) precedent from the Court.

“We have a traditional way of looking at the promises Jefferson made in the Declaration of Independence…for Lincoln, the decision’s [sticking point] was that it meant the federal government could not prohibit slavery,” Burt said.

The significant factor, Burt’s lecture advised, was that the decision denied citizenship to those of African descent.. There were many free blacks in the United States at the time, yet then-Chief Justice Roger Taney, Burt said, intimated that these free men could not establish standing in court.

“Lincoln was [an adherent] to the belief that all persons, not just legal citizens, owe each other certain respects, namely equality of [point of view]—they owe each other moral autonomy,” Burt said.

Burt explained that Lincoln, in responding to a decision that in Burt’s summation, “declared unconstitutional the very platform of his [Republican] Party,” had to argue correctly to have a chance at future holes in the Supreme Court’s interpretation.

If Lincoln had attacked the power of the Supreme Court itself, it is likely he would not have succeeded in politics, Burt explained. And to defeat Senator Stephen Douglas in their famous debates on the subject, Lincoln could not sound partisan and accusatory “like how the Democrats had accused Republicans beforehand,” Burt said.

“He had to do it without an anarchic response and without highhanded politics,” he said.

Burt presented Lincoln’s eventual success as one recognizable to both believers in the Founders and contemporary followers of democracy, asserting that Lincoln’s perception is what should matter.

“We had free black voters—so it was threat to the values of the Declaration of Independence [the assumption of moral autonomy] that most concerned Lincoln,” he said.

He also argued that Lincoln’s reasoning applies even in modern life, with the Declaration’s “promise of unalienable rights a stumbling block to despotism.”

“The meaning [of its promises] continues to unfold—and not all of these meanings could have possibly been on the minds of the Founders,” Burt said. “Respecting the concepts of the Founders—the rights—is more important than following the exact intentions of them.”

“My interest is in the failure to accurately represent the expectations at the time—it gives us a sense of the difference between the 1860s and today,” Jonathan Sudholt (GRAD), the designer of the exhibit, said, adding that cartoonists and the media thought they were accurately representing the events of the day as well.

It was this attention to detail that gave significance to this part of the Rolde series.

“This is a continuation of our series—last semester we celebrated Lincoln’s 200th birthday,” Shoemaker said, “and we wanted to delve into both the political and social aspects, and incorporate our collections.”

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