Illinois Presidents: An Exposé of Republican Liberty

“Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man,” said Lincoln as he left the capital of Springfield for Washington, D.C. in 1861. Of course we all know what he did as the first Republican president. From the Emancipation Proclamation to the Gettysburg Address to victory over the Confederacy, Lincoln espoused the American values of freedom, union, and perpetuity. While it’s true to some extent that he was not the biggest supporter of perfect black-white equality, his overarching beliefs were in the founding documents of America. First, he held that the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were enhanced by a document promising an even “more perfect Union” than that of a perpetual one, meaning that we could not possibly be separated into two countries. Secondly, he utilized the Declaration of Independence not just for its face value but as a legal and ideological foundation for everything else American, including the Constitution, which drove his abolitionism. Lincoln’s desire to stand up for his beliefs in America cost over 600,000 American lives but freed millions of other Americans; in doing so, he set the precedent that the intents and spirits of our founding documents should remain foremost in our lives and laws for all time.

The other Illinois Civil War hero president was Ulysses S. Grant. He was a veteran of the Mexican-American war who owned a slave whom he set free in 1859 while still living in Missouri. This is extremely significant because Grant failed at farming with a slave; moreover, his disgruntled view of politics surrounding secession caused him to believe that the Mexican-American war was in fact about gaining land for the South and slavery. Therefore, having just moved to Galena in 1860, it was an easy decision to answer Lincoln’s call for volunteers in 1861 almost immediately, which eventually culminated in his acceptance of Confederate General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. In 1868, Grant was elected as the 18th President of the United States. Though his terms in office were marred by corruption and patronage, he managed to effect Reconstruction through three main concepts- Confederates were still Americans, blacks deserved civil rights, and all opposition to this must be cut off at the head. Grant’s handling of the post bellum South vindicated Lincoln’s ideals of union, equality, and the necessity of both to the country’s survival and endurance. It should not be forgotten that Grant, a man who had been known to feint at the sight of blood, personally oversaw thousands of deaths in order to stand up for these beliefs.

One hundred years after Grant failed in his bid for a nonconsecutive third term, an actor-turned-governor from California almost swept the country on Election Day. Born in Tampico, Illinois, Democrat-turned-Republican Ronald Reagan has become the face of the modern-day conservative movement. Reagan is perhaps best known for his stand in the face of the communist USSR, and his speech in West Berlin demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Though efforts had been made for decades in fighting the Cold War, Reagan knew just how to strike in order to finally make the decisive blow; the Berlin Wall was torn down and shortly after his term, the USSR dissolved, helping millions abroad see the light of freedom. Reagan believed it was the right of the whole world to enjoy the liberty and freedom that Lincoln and Grant fought for within the United States, and he knew that this was not possible under communism. In his refusal to back down, Reagan evoked the courage and conviction of Lincoln and Grant and, like them, won the fight (though much less bloody) for America.

All of this makes one wonder what it would mean for Barack Obama to be elected in 2008. Of course he would be a historically gigantic figure as the first black president, but let’s just say that JFK isn’t remembered just because he was Catholic. Though Obama is not a Republican, would he stand not just for liberty as Democrats claim, but for the Founders’ kind of liberty? Would he understand the legal and cultural necessities of using America’s original documents as the basis of everything he did, or would his message of change take first priority? Would he be willing to fight, either within or outside of our borders, in order to protect the most fundamental American values, or would he retreat because of his interest in world opinion? This post is not meant to answer those questions directly, but to make us all reflect on what it means to be an Illinois President. The bar has been set pretty high; can Barack Obama, at least at this point in his life and career, can reach it?

My Point: The only Presidents who have had any serious claim to Illinois residency have had huge historical impacts, are now seen as icons in American culture, and fought for the most core of American values in the face of staunch opposition. (Not incidentally, they were also all Republicans.) Even though local politics are generally known as corrupt on all sides, there is something about this Great State that produces excellence in national leaders- Lincoln fought off seceding states, Grant fought off Confederate guns, and Reagan fought off nuclear communists. Now is no time to be substituting rhetoric for stand-up conviction.


More historical analysis at Commodore Perry, with some nice pics of these guys to boot.