For Presidents Day, UND scholars reflect on significance of 'Honest Abe'


Kate Menzies

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For Presidents Day, UND scholars reflect on significance of 'Honest Abe'

Abraham Lincoln is forever engrained in U.S. history as the president who moved to abolish slavery.

But, for University of North Dakota scholars Eric Burin and Mark Jendrysik, Lincoln is much more than that. They regard him as one of the most fascinating presidents of all time.

"It's fitting that Lincoln would be so well remembered, for he wanted to create an ever-lasting legacy for himself," said Burin, professor of history. "Lincoln doubted there was an afterlife, so the way to achieve immortality was to be remembered by the living."

Mission accomplished.

Lately, there has been a resurgence of books and movies about Lincoln and his legacy. This is, in part, due to his monumental accomplishments.

Aside from his impact on The Great Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, Lincoln is known for delivering one of the most memorable speeches in American history: the Gettysburg Address.

Burin ventures that "the current fascination with Lincoln is partly a result of changes within the historical profession. Some of the best-known historians in the field have produced books on Lincoln, and as a result their works have garnered a lot of attention from scholars and laypeople alike."

Jendrysik, professor of political science and public administration, added that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War has played a part in Lincoln's new-found popularity, as well as his compelling character.

"People want to know more about the man and understand his motivations as a person," he said.

And that's the kind of interesting stuff that Burin and Jendrysik ? both experts on the 16th president, his life and legacy ? describe for their students. They know the man behind the legend. And what they know make the legend even more intriguing.

What many don't know is that Lincoln, the first Republican commander in chief, was a strong advocate for government-sponsored transportation projects, as he thought better roads, canals and railways would bring more economic opportunities to everyday people.

He also was a supporter of public education, which led him to sign the Morrill Act. This document established higher education institutions in each state, focusing particularly on agriculture, home economics and other practical professions of his time.

Even though education and transportation are still hot topic issues for current political candidates, Lincoln's political view was quite different from that of today's politicians.

"Lincoln was a great politician because he was honest with himself. He had strong principles and held on to them, but was also willing to compromise to get things done," Jendrysik said. "This is not appealing to a lot of people today who think compromise is bad, but I think his recognition of what was possible at any given moment during his presidency is very admirable."

Unfortunately, Lincoln's career came to a violent end the day he was shot and killed by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth, while attending a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. He is one of four U.S. presidents that have been assassinated while in office.

There is no telling how or if the course of history would have changed had Lincoln not been killed.

"Lincoln understood that for the nation to truly reunite, he would need to reach out to white southerners who might accept emancipation, but would likely resist racial equality and black suffrage," said Burin.

As Burin put it, "No one knows how Lincoln would have resolved this dilemma. All we know is that he would have been the best man for the job."

Kate Menzies University & Public Affairs student writer

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