DECATUR -- The county is divided when it comes to new president Donald Trump. When considering the current political climate, former Millikin University professor Dan Guillory couldn’t help but think of another president who presided over a nation divided.
Those thoughts inspired Guillory’s presentation at the Decatur Public Library’s Madden Auditorium on Monday: Lincoln’s Legacy. Guillory is the author of several books of which Abraham Lincoln is the subject, including “The Lincoln Poems” and “Living with Lincoln.”
“The politics of today were certainly the catalyst for this talk,” Guillory said. “I started thinking about how, when you look at Lincoln, it kind of puts everything today in a different perspective.”
Guillory’s presentation focused on Lincoln’s compassion and tolerance, which led him to writing the Emancipation Proclamation despite spending 30 years in a state -- Illinois -- that rejected slavery by just two votes in the state legislature and had a long tradition of indentured servants.
A window into Lincoln’s view of humanity came in his first inaugural address, which contained the memorable line:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward advised on the speech and had written the line: "The better angels of our nation,” but Lincoln changed the final word to “nature.”
“To Lincoln, every one of us has a strong moral sense,” Guillory said. “And it’s not a religious principle as much as it was an ethical principle. By changing it from 'nation' to 'nature,' he’s suggesting it’s personal for each one of us, and that each one of us should act on those better angels.”
Guillory said Lincoln’s views of black people as equals began with a relationship with Springfield barber William de Fleurville, a Haitian known as Billy the Barber.
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“Billy was Lincoln’s first real encounter with a black person who was successful, free and autonomous,” Guillory said. “Lincoln realized if Billy could do it, so could others.”
Lincoln’s opinion continued to evolve when he got to Washington, D.C., and met former slave Elizabeth Keckley, who became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and later wrote a book: “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.”
“She worked in the White House, and most of what we know about life in the White House during the Lincoln years comes from Elizabeth Keckley,” Guillory said. “And like Billy the Barber, she was a model of African-American success for Lincoln.”
Though Guillory said Lincoln wasn’t right about everything -- Lincoln thought slavery would have eventually gone away on its own; Guillory disagreed -- he said historians agree Lincoln was the most intelligent and best president.
“It’s shown by his writing and speeches,” Guillory said. “He was highly intellectual and highly reflective, and that influenced the decisions he made.”
Tom Poland of Phoenix, in Decatur visiting brother and sister-in-law Lyle and Carol Poland, agreed Lincoln was the best chief executive and said he wouldn’t be surprised with the present-day political atmosphere.
“He would be very familiar with this, because it was pretty similar in his time as it is today with all the political divisions and disrespect from each side to the other,” Tom Poland said. “I don’t think he’d be pleased, but he’d understand it.”
Guillory said his presentation wasn’t specifically aimed at Trump, but couldn’t help but notice the differences in their leadership styles.
“I tried it out on a few of my friends, some of whom were very left-leaning, and they’re saying, ‘Yeah, right on,’ ” Guillory said, laughing. “I told them, it wasn’t meant to be specifically aimed at Trump -- Bill Clinton had his problems, too -- but I think this has been a unique first month of a presidency in my lifetime.”