January 16, 2012
It might be easy to define Abraham Lincoln by superlative adjectives and definitive adverbs -tallest, moodiest, greatest. Perhaps many would consider him one of the least physically attractive of White House chief executives. Yet the memorial to the 16th president in Washington, D.C. is one of the most visited. Perhaps the emotional connection people have with this person, who has been dead for nearly a century and a half, can be explained in part because he achieved so much with so little formal education. Yet it is not widely known that the honorary title of "doctor" was one bestowed upon him by those in academia.
Having been inaugurated for the first time on the cusp of one of the most seismic events in American culture, the Civil War, this frontier lawyer brought no executive experience to the presidency. His formal learning appeared almost equally lacking. In his 1860 campaign biography, Lincoln described his educational experience as "deficient." By his calculations, his school experience totaled no more than one year. Maybe this lack ironically helped him in his White House bid, as the book learning of his fellow citizens around the time of the Civil War averaged 434 days. So in this respect most of the electorate would be able to identify with him. Even so, his lack in educational attainments throws his accomplishments and legacy into greater relief. Among his state papers are masterpieces of American literature.
A lack of knowledge does not necessarily parallel a person's desire to learn. "My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read," Lincoln said. Perhaps it was because of this one-time rail splitter's scant opportunities to attend school that he had a keen interest in education. When only 31 as an Illinois legislator, he put forward a resolution calling for would-be teachers to pass a qualifying test for admittance into their profession. During his first-term presidential bid, Lincoln received another elective honor. He became a trustee of Illinois State University, a projected institution of higher learning in his hometown of Springfield, Ill. Six days later, (on July 4, 1860) he was awarded an honorary doctorate from a college in Illinois, received another one the following year and before his death received his third from what is today Princeton.
From 1861 to 1865, Abraham Lincoln's chief priorities lay in ending a rebellion and forging a fractured Union into a nation. In the conflict, he learned that this could be accomplished only by abolishing something he hated - the "peculiar institution" of slavery. Despite these primary war responsibilities he still supported education and the advancement of knowledge. It was because of the president's signature that the Morrill bill became the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862. With the bill's passage into law, the possibility to obtain a college diploma was made more available to individuals outside moneyed circles. Vast expanses of government land went up for sale in every state loyal to the Union and the proceeds from these transactions were set aside to found institutions of higher education. These land grant colleges were established to train their students in practical disciplines, such as agriculture, at tuition rates they could pay. It was also during the 16th president's tenure that the National Academy of Sciences was founded in 1863.
Joseph Henry was director of the Smithsonian Institution, which had been created for the dissemination of knowledge for the American public. His remark about Abraham Lincoln's vision applies to more than just one area: "…the most far-seeing head in this land is on the shoulders of that awkward rail splitter from Illinois."