Less than a week from the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, one of the country’s premiere scholars on presidential history, Richard Norton Smith, was on Calvin’s campus as part of the 2009 January Series.
Less than a week from the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, one of the country’s premiere scholars on presidential history, Richard Norton Smith, was on Calvin’s campus as part of the 2009 January Series. Smith was not on campus to consider the historical implications of Jan., 20, 2009, though; rather, he was at Calvin to reflect on “the president against whom all others are measured”: Abraham Lincoln.
“I cannot think of a statesman who was not first endowed with great political skills. Lincoln was perhaps the most skilled politician to ever occupy the White House,” he said.
Lincoln was superbly qualified to rally public opinion through his rhetoric and speeches. “Great presidents not only speak to us,” Smith said. “They speak for us.” He interjected many of Lincoln’s own quotes into the hour-long biographical sketch to demonstrate that point. Smith reflected on Lincoln’s abhorrence of slavery: "There was never a time in his life when slavery did not have the power to make him miserable. He said, ‘Whenever I hear someone speak in defense of slavery I feel a strong impulse to have it tried on him.’”
He also spoke of Lincoln’s legendary sense of humor. “Where logic failed, Lincoln turned to laughter,” Smith said. “He often joked about his appearance and once when he was accused of being two-faced, he responded, ‘If I really were two-faced, why would I choose to hide behind this one?’” While a president’s legacy cannot accurately be determined until years after his departure from office, according to Smith, Lincoln’s legacy continues to grow and “… 200 years later we cannot escape Lincoln. He was a profoundly rational voice in an extremely irrational time.”