DECATUR – The setting may not have been the U.S. Capitol, but by the time Michael Burlingame spoke some of the words Abraham Lincoln chose for his second inaugural address, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.
Before a standing-room-only audience at Millikin University's Perkinson Music Center on Thursday evening, the internationally renowned scholar was sharing some insights about our nation's 16th president that he found in the papers of Frederick Douglass.
He said Douglass did not initially grasp the importance of Lincoln's last speech on April 11, 1865, when he said for the first time publicly that he believed some blacks should be given the right to vote, namely those who had served in the Union army and those who were literate.
“I was disappointed by the limited scope of the proposal but should have known (better) … because Abraham Lincoln learned his statesmanship in the school of rail-splitting,” Burlingame quoted Douglass as saying. “And to split a rail, you take a wedge, and you first insert the thin edge of the wedge into the log.”
By contrast, actor John Wilkes Booth understood the significance of Lincoln's statement all too well and murdered the president for it three days later.
Burlingame's appearance Thursday was the 2015 T.W. Samuels Lecture, created in 1977 in honor of the late senior partner in the law firm of Samuels, Miller, Schroeder, Jackson and Sly.
Holder of the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Burlingame has written 12 books on the life of Abraham Lincoln, including “Abraham Lincoln: A Life,” a two-volume biography published in 2009.
“Abraham Lincoln was not murdered because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation (nor was he murdered) because he supported the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the United States,” Burlingame said. “Abraham Lincoln was murdered because he called for black voting rights.
“I think it is therefore appropriate for us to regard Lincoln as a martyr for black civil rights as much as Martin Luther King, or Medgar Evers or Viola Liuzzo or James Reeb or Mickey Schwerner or James Chaney or Andrew Goodman or any of those people who were murdered in the 1960s as they championed the civil rights revolution of our modern time.”
Thursday afternoon, Burlingame met informally with about 20 students and faculty in Shilling Hall and shared his theory on why Lincoln hated slavery from an early age.
“I suggest that Lincoln loathed, despised and hated slavery because he hated, loathed and despised the way his father treated him,” he said. “I think Lincoln, unconsciously, he identified himself with the slaves and his father with the slaveholders.”
Burlingame also said Lincoln possessed an “unusually sensitive conscience” and was famous for chastising his playmates growing up in southwest Indiana for their cruelty to animals.
“Boys on the frontier thought it was great sport to take turtles and throw them against trees, throw snakes into the fire and that sort of thing,” he said. “I think anybody who was that sensitive to that issue in that time period would have been outraged about cruelty to slaves.”