Even at 208, Abraham Lincoln is still relevant today

abraham lincoln
One hundred seventy years ago, Abraham Lincoln joined the House of Representatives as a member of the 30th U.S. Congress. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
One hundred seventy years ago, Abraham Lincoln joined the House of Representatives as a member of the 30th U.S. Congress. With his 208th birthday just around the corner, three faculty members from DePaul's College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences offer insight into how the president was depicted in photography and art, his enjoyment of Chicago and his relevance in modern times.

"Lincoln loved Chicago and often had his picture taken on Lake Street, where all the photography studies were," says Mark Pohlad, an associate professor of art history and architecture, and a Lincoln photography expert. "He was the first extensively photographed president, though not the first to be photographed. Lincoln understood people needed to see his likeness to be elected. Thus, he was the first president to use the medium of photography in a very modern way."

Though Lincoln died nearly 152 years ago, his presence is still evident in Chicago today.

"Chicago has some of the best Lincoln sculptures in the country, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens' 'Standing Lincoln,' behind the Chicago History Museum," Pohlad says. "That one was actually unveiled by Lincoln's grandson, the last direct male descendent. Another is the sculpture of Lincoln as a young lawyer at the corner of Lawrence and Western Avenues in the Lincoln Square neighborhood."

In a career full of impressive feats, Lincoln is best known for helping preserve the Union and ending slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. For this reason, Lincoln is often "cast as a transcendent, saintly Great Emancipator," says Margaret Storey, a professor of history. However, the Civil War scholar believes it's best to look at the full picture and understand the time period during which Lincoln lived and served.

"My sense from teaching the Civil War for many years is that there still is a very deep-seated notion that Lincoln came into office aiming to end slavery in the South," Storey says. "This was not the case, but many people have a strong desire to remember his position on slavery and race in a way that brings him into alignment with modern values. However, this position doesn't help us understand Lincoln, nor does it help us understand the limits of the historical changes that the Civil War brought.

"Modern historians instead point to the white supremacist world in which Lincoln existed, a world in which he could oppose slavery on moral grounds, yet have no argument with racist hierarchies in American society and see no imperative to create civil equality for African-Americans, even after slavery ended," she adds. "The consequences of that racially-defined view of civil liberty - of who was an American with full civil rights and who was not - are still being felt today."

What makes Lincoln so memorable to many is not only what he did while serving in the office of the president, but also how he conducted himself.

"He was one of our most eloquent presidents - the first and second inaugural addresses are among the greatest speeches in American letters. At the same time he was an easy, funny colloquial speaker whose words are accessible to everyday people," Storey says.

Political science professor Larry Bennett believes Lincoln is still very much relevant in the 21st century.

"Lincoln's best attributes should always be relevant, especially for political leaders," Bennett says. "He had a respect for language that contemporary politicians could learn a lot from. He was a political leader who attempted to communicate in a way that was inspiring. His style of leadership motivated people, and he was able to communicate that principles motivated his actions."