LEXINGTON, Ky—Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith extolled the moral vision and political accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln in his Kenan Lecture presentation in Haggin Auditorium at Transylvania University on Monday, February 16.
“Abraham Lincoln put principle above popularity and became the greatest communicator and politician ever to inhabit the White House,” Smith told his large and appreciative audience. “He led America through its great passion play, the Civil War. I believe he is the President against whom all others must be measured.”
Smith is a presidential historian and scholar in residence at George Mason University and is known to millions through his roles as the ABC News presidential historian and as a political analyst for PBS. His speech was part of of Transylvania’s celebration of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial.
Smith said it was Lincoln’s ability to grow intellectually and morally throughout his lifetime that allowed him to confront the critical moral issue of his time, slavery.
“He came to understand that it was hypocritical for a nation conceived in liberty to keep millions in slavery,” Smith said. Countering the prevailing notion that colonization of African Americans to foreign lands was the solution, “Lincoln concluded that a bi-racial America was possible. He outgrew the racist society that produced him.”
Smith chose his title, “Our Lincoln,” to suggest that many people see themselves in Lincoln’s struggles to rise from an impoverished and uneducated background to realize his dreams and ambitions through hard work and a morality based on human decency.
While acknowledging the criticisms directed at Lincoln’s wife, Lexington native Mary Todd, Smith made the case that she played a pivotal role in her husband’s success. He went so far as to say that without Mary, there would not have been the Abraham Lincoln who went down in history.
“He and Mary formed a political partnership,” Smith said. “If she were alive today, she could be a candidate herself. She saw his potential and encouraged him to run again after his election defeats. It was a turbulent, but sustaining marriage.”
In spite of the overwhelming volume of Lincoln scholarship, Smith believes the search for the “real” Lincoln continues to this day.
“In a sense, Lincoln is someone every generation discovers for itself,” Smith said. “I don’t think we can ever know too much about Abraham Lincoln.”
A prolific writer, Smith was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for his book, Thomas E. Dewey and His Times. He has served as director of presidential libraries and museums dedicated to Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford. In 2003, he was named founding director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., and executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. He is a graduate of Harvard University with a degree in government.
The Kenan Lecture at Transylvania is funded by a grant from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust. Among noted previous speakers in the series are Elie Wiesel, Eric Sevareid, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and Beverly Sills.