March 4, 2003
GW Professor Plans to Keep Lincolns Legend
A 15-Member Presidential Commission Seeks to Preserve
the Legacy of Abraham Lincoln with Bicentennial Celebration of His Birth
Thanks to the work of James Horton and other prominent scholars, every
Presidents 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,
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 groups goal is to educate the public and to find meaningful
ways to celebrate the pivotal role he played in the preservation of
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 commissions Web site at www.lincolnbicentennial.com.
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. Were constantly
making new discoveries, thats why I became a historian. You start
asking questions and you get addicted to history. Im an example
that its a life-long addiction.
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