By Erik M. Emanuelson
On Thursday night in Torpe Theatre CCSU welcomed one of the nation’s foremost Abraham Lincoln experts, Frank J. Williams in light of Spielberg’s Academy Award Winning Motion Picture Lincoln and the University’s involvement in Civil War commemoration events.
Williams is a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island and served three years as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Military Commissions Review. Alongside that, Williams is a notable Lincoln scholar and author or editor of 14 books.
“He (Williams) has amassed an unsurpassed private library and archive that ranks among the nation’s largest and finest Lincoln collections,” said Matthew Warshauer, professor of history at CCSU. Williams is currently working on an annotated bibliography of all Lincoln titles published since 1865. Williams spoke to the crowd of Lincoln’s biography and background.
Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809, in the backwoods of Kentucky. Lincoln’s father, Thomas, who could neither read nor write, provided the barest kind of living for Abraham and his frail and religious wife Nancy Hanks Lincoln. When a grown man, Lincoln wrote of her: “All that I am and all that I hope to be I owe to my sainted mother.”
According to Williams, Lincoln went to school “by littles” for about nine years, but all his schooling together did not amount to one full year. He had no pencils or paper, so reverted to writing his lessons on a wooden shovel with a piece of charcoal.
In 1831 while taking a trip down the Mississippi River to market vegetables and bacon among cotton planters in New Orleans, Lincoln saw for the first time African Americans chained and put on a block, auctioned to the highest bidder. The sight made him sick at heart and he then and there pledged to fight slavery.
“What Lincoln is less known for is his quarter century practice as a lawyer,” said Williams to the crowd. “During these 24 years Lincoln honed his political skills, he learned the art of debate, the weight of words and the skill of negotiating. The issues of slavery and succession were legal as much as they were moral.”
Williams said that after losing his first election in spring of 1832 to Illinois State Legislature, Lincoln won in 1834. It was there where Lincoln met his longtime rival Stephen A. Douglas, the political little giant, who as Lincoln said, “would blow out the moral lights around us”.
Lincoln served four terms in the Illinois legislature working to give the state railroads, canals and banks. During these eight years, Lincoln’s integrity and honesty as a practicing lawyer grew.
“He (Lincoln) once declared ‘I mean to put a case no stronger than the truth will allow’,” said Williams.
Williams said that in a trial in Munmorah, Illinois was proceeding poorly for Mrs. Goings, charged with murdering her abusive husband. Her attorney, Lincoln, called for a recess, to confer with his client. When court reconviened and Mrs. Goings could not be found, Lincoln was accused of advising her to flee, a charge he denied. He explained, however, that the defendant had asked him if she could get a drink of water and he had pointed out: “Tennessee had darn good water.” Mrs. Goings was never seen again in Illinois.
Lincoln biographers have concluded that Lincoln’s legal practice ended on the day he last visited his law office in Illinois, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“The most important part of Lincoln’s career was during his presidency. There he put to the highest use all he had learned since his admission to the bar in 1887,” said Williams.
Lincoln was elected as the 16 President of the United States on Nov. 6, 1880. The following year the Civil War began when the Confederacy fired upon the Union flag flying over Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Although Lincoln put the saving of the Union as the first great purpose of the war, by 1862 he knew that abolishing slavery should be made the second great purpose.
Thousands of slaves were escaping to the North and in July, 1862 Congress passed a law permitting escaped slaves to serve in the Northern Army. After back to back defeats at Cedar Mountain and Bull Run, Lincoln told his cabinet that he had made a promise to himself and his maker, that if God gave the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider that God had decided his questions in favor of the slaves.
On Sept. 17, the northerners were victorious in Antietam, five days later Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, making four million slaves “on the first of January 1863,-thence-forth and forever free.”
On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, ending the Civil War. The same year Lincoln’s lifelong dream and hope became a reality when an amendment was added to the Constitution of the United States, forever forbidding slavery in every part of the country.
“His legacy hangs over all of us. To free a people to preserve the Union, to bind up the nations wounds,” said Williams. “Lincoln’s presidency, at a moment of great moral passion in the country’s leadership.”