Author: Lincoln symbolizes potential

Even with rooms full of books written about him, a week's worth of events recognizing the bicentennial of his birth and a new penny in his honor, the true mystique of Abraham Lincoln lies in what his story means to each American.

That's the message historian and presidential scholar Richard Norton Smith will deliver Monday night in his Our Lincoln lecture at Transylvania University — the Presidents Day cap to the recent Lincoln celebration.

The journey from a log cabin in frontier Kentucky to being the 16th president of the United States is more than just an inspirational story. It symbolizes the best of what the nation was built on, which is probably the main reason people hold Lincoln so dear today, Smith said.

"I think one reason that we go back to the well over and over and over again, he does embody what we like to think of as uniquely American," he said in a telephone interview last week. "It doesn't matter where you are born, it doesn't put limits on your life. And that's part of Kentucky's story."

Smith, an author and former director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., is the latest speaker in Transylvania's Kenan Lecture series, named for university benefactor William R. Kenan Jr.

Smith, a former aide to retired Republican Sen. Bob Dole and a frequent participant on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer on the Public Broadcasting Service, has written four books and has served as director for four other presidential libraries, including those of Ronald Reagan, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald Ford.

He said that his initial fascination with Lincoln, probably like most people's, was sparked as a child when he read a book about the president's humble beginnings.

"I remember being struck by the story and what he overcame and his experience against adversity," he said. "To think of the odds against Lincoln. Here's a kid who has a year or less of formal schooling, yet he writes imperishable prose."

Much of Lincoln's early life, and how he essentially taught himself to read and write, remains mostly lost to history, which adds mystery and another dimension to an already complicated and layered man. That's something Smith will touch on during Monday's lecture, as well as touching on Lincoln's evolution during his years in the White House.

"The fact is, one of the reasons I think Lincoln still speaks to us, is because of his capacity to grow," he said. "We all like to think that once you put the hand on the Bible, this other process begins, and the office makes the man."

In fact, even Lincoln's attitudes toward race in America changed during his time in office, and three nights before he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln talked publicly about extending the right to vote to at least some African-Americans, Smith said.

Lincoln's willingness to be daring and creative, such as his move to suspend habeas corpus as a drastic measure aimed at suppressing rebellions in border states, left an enduring mark on the American presidency and the country itself, which cannot be understated, Smith said.

"In some ways he's such a modern figure. He really invented the wartime presidency," Smith said. "He may have been born 200 years ago, but he is as relevant as the morning's headlines."

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