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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Lincoln still timely, Illinois sculptor says

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Oct. 12, 13 or 14

Abraham Lincoln was 45 when he addressed a Peoria audience 161 years ago this week about Congress allowing slavery to expand. One of three speeches he gave on the topic, his Peoria remarks on Oct. 16, 1854, became the most famous, now commemorated at a Peoria courthouse with the sculpture “Lincoln Draws The Line” by artist John McClarey.

McClarey recently talked about Lincoln and how many of the 19th century’s controversies remain.

“He dealt with some of the issues we’re dealing with today,” McClarey says, like state’s rights, racism and labor.

“Lincoln advocated ‘free labor,’ universal education, diversified agriculture, the land-grant system that led to university extension, plus science and technology – even wind power,” McClarey says. “He wanted a national bank, to be free from foreign interests.”

McClarey, 79, is an historian as well as an artist. After earning degrees from Millikin College and Illinois State University, he taught high school and college for 26 years in Decatur, retiring in 1995 – although he still sometimes has classes at the Springfield Art Association.

His art is displayed throughout Illinois and the world. Besides Peoria, his work can be seen in Charleston, Metamora, rural Petersburg (at New Salem State Park), Springfield (at Union Square Park and the State Supreme Court), Taylorville, Vandalia, and even the Russian State Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow. Although he’s been recognized with the Lincoln Forum’s Richard Nelson Current Award of Achievement and the State of Illinois’ Order of Lincoln honor, McClarey also has sculpted historical figures such as abolitionist and journalist Frederick Douglass, President Ronald Reagan, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and Native American Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.

For “Lincoln Draws The Line,” McClarey drew upon the fierce, pre-Civil War debate raging about slavery. Lincoln’s Peoria speech vigorously objected to that year’s Congressional action upending limitations on legal bondage.

The 1820 Missouri Compromise had generally prohibited slavery north of the 36°30' latitude, and the Compromise of 1850 had reaffirmed it. But U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, an Illinois Democrat, set off political upheaval with 1854’s Kansas–Nebraska Act, which created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and also allowed settlers (white males, that is) to vote whether to permit slavery there, essentially repealing the Missouri Compromise.

The law passed with support by all Southerners of both parties (Democrat and Whigs), and some Democrats from the North, like Douglas. The strategy was the first occurrence of the South as a political force, leading to the breakup of the Whig Party and the formation of the Republican Party, made up of ex-Whigs (like Lincoln) and anti-slavery Democrats.

The dispute showed Lincoln’s distinction between law and order, and right and wrong, McClarey says.

“There was the law, and then the higher principles of law – justice and mercy,” he says. “He made that come alive. He helped Americans feel better about their country.”

That extended beyond working in chains to what became known as “wage slavery.”

“Lincoln wanted to free labor even before the Emancipation Proclamation, and not just slavery but the right for workers to bargain for their wages,” McClarey says. “He was working class. His father was a farmer – though not very successful – and before he became a lawyer he was a worker – a surveyor – and always had a sensitivity about the common man. He wanted there to be the feeling that there were opportunities for the common man to rise.”

Ex-rail splitter, shopkeeper, postmaster, and assistant steamboat pilot, Lincoln was a common man.

He expressed his appreciation of working people on Sept. 30, 1859, at the Wisconsin State Fair.

“By some it is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital, that nobody labors, unless somebody else owning capital, somehow, by the use of it, induces him to do it,” Lincoln said. “But another class of reasoners … hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed – that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor.”

The bronze statue in Peoria marks the occasion five years earlier, when Lincoln made a more universal observation reflecting his higher principles: “No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent,” he said. “I say this is the leading principle – the sheet anchor of American republicanism.”

[PICTURED: Bill Knight photo of Illinois sculptor John McClarey.]

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