Symposium honors bicentennial of Lincoln’s birthday

A group of presenters opened the two-day symposium on the life of Abraham Lincoln on Thursday. The symposium, titled “Lincoln: Yesterday and Today,” is being held at the College of Law, free and open to the public.

The symposium runs through 4 p.m. Friday.

The event marks the last of the campus events held over the past year to celebrate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Presenters spoke about Lincoln’s legacy and personal life as a lawyer.

Bruce Levine, professor of history at the University, spoke about Lincoln’s representation of white land owners and middle class values. He said Lincoln was conciliatory in maintaining the status quo in the 1840s and 1850s until he became an opponent of slavery.

“Abraham Lincoln was elected by and spoke for white farmers. He was thoroughly middle class in his ideas,” Levine said. “Slavery was a problem with Lincoln because it was against his moral beliefs.”

He added that though Lincoln was not a revolutionary figure, he was shrewd about fixing noted injustices.

J. Steven Beckett, director of the trial advocacy program at the College of Law, discussed Lincoln’s life as a lawyer. Lincoln practiced law in Urbana in the 1840s and 1850s, he said. Lincoln was also the defense attorney assigned to Champaign County’s first murder case.

“Unfortunately Lincoln lost and the defendant was sentenced to hang, but escaped,” he said. “There was no Johnny Cochran style ending.”

Beckett said while Lincoln practiced law, he did not always represent the side he thought was inherently right. One such instance was the Illinois Central Railroad vs. McLean County case.

“The railroad asked Lincoln to represent them against McLean County,” Beckett said. “However he threatened to represent the other side if they paid him more.”

He said Lincoln was just an honest lawyer trying to earn a fair living.

A lighter side of Lincoln was portrayed by Beckett, who said people often view him as a very serious person.

Once, a lawyer ripped his pants after he was wrestling outside the courthouse, Beckett said. When lawyers passed a note around to pledge money toward new pants, Lincoln wrote, “I have nothing to contribute to the end in view.”

As the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birthday comes to a close, some question why Lincoln’s legacy is so strong. Levine said it is because some people see him as “the best example we have in our national history of a leader that had to confront injustices.”

Jose Velazquez, senior in LAS, said he came to the symposium because he admires Lincoln as a person who rose to the occasion when the country faced problems during his presidency.

Levine said Lincoln’s continued legacy will depend on “the quality of people that arise during the next 100 years.” However, he said he doubts his legacy will ever lose its significance because of his work towards the emancipation of slaves.