ByGeorge! Online

March 4, 2003

GW Professor Plans to Keep Lincoln’s Legend Alive

A 15-Member Presidential Commission Seeks to Preserve the Legacy of Abraham Lincoln with Bicentennial Celebration of His Birth in 2009

By Brian Krause

Thanks to the work of James Horton and other prominent scholars, every President’s Day Abraham Lincoln is remembered for much more than his lanky legs, trademark stovepipe hat, and chin whiskers.

Horton, the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at GW, was chosen by President Clinton to be a member of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, a group dedicated to preserving the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and planning his bicentennial celebration Feb. 12, 2009.

The 15-member commission, made up of scholars and elected officials, was appointed following the passage of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission Act in 2000. Chosen for their extensive knowledge of President Lincoln, the group’s goal is to educate the public and to find meaningful ways to celebrate the pivotal role he played in the preservation of the nation.

“Lincoln is a central figure in all of American history. He was challenged with the most difficult time America has faced,” says Horton. “Powerful forces were working to tear [the nation] apart and Lincoln was able to hold it together. Most importantly, he showed a capacity for personal growth.”

According to Horton, Lincoln never originally intended to end slavery when first elected president, but his beliefs and attitudes evolved based on his personal experiences. A transformation occurred, and by reading his speeches and studying his actions, it can be seen that he committed himself to the abolitionist cause.

“Lincoln parallels American society,” explains Horton. “He was not initially a racial egalitarian, but he was certainly moving toward that in the end. The greatest asset a person can have is to learn from experiences and change their thoughts and behaviors based on them.”

Michael Bishop, executive director of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, says they are currently collaborating with both experts and the public to brainstorm possible ways to honor Lincoln, which will be presented in a report to Congress early next year. He asks that anyone interested in submitting an idea visit the commission’s Web site at

“Lincoln was our greatest president. He destroyed slavery and saved the Union,” says Bishop. “We are celebrating not just the life of one great man, but American democracy.”

Horton hopes that GW will play an active role in any plans for celebration, whether by hosting conferences and exhibits, or through the participation of students, faculty, and staff who will take advantage of these programs.

“I think that there are a lot of symbolic things we can do, but the most important thing is to use this celebration as an educational opportunity,” states Horton. “We need to address the issues that animated his time and are still critical now. Abraham Lincoln gives us a great opportunity to discuss and debate the important topics of freedom and equality.”

Before being appointed to the Bicentennial Commission, Horton served on the White House Millennium Council as a history expert for then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. He was a winner of the Trachtenberg Distinguished Teaching Award, a CASE Professor of the Year for the District of Columbia, and is the author of numerous books about African American history.

“History is a matter of discovery. People get excited because they [learn] something new,” says Horton. “We’re constantly making new discoveries, that’s why I became a historian. You start asking questions and you get addicted to history. I’m an example that it’s a life-long addiction.”


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