Many people are surprised to know that Missouri is one of only five states that observe Lincoln’s Birthday as a state holiday. Most states only observe President’s Day, which falls on George Washington’s birthday and is five days after President Lincoln’s birthday.
With Abraham Lincoln’s many ties to the Show-Me state, it makes sense we’d “show-him” special commemoration on his birthday. Some Missouri-Lincoln ties are obvious such as his association with our neighboring state of Illinois. However, there are lesser-known but tighter connections between the nation’s 16th president and Missouri.
In 1819, David Todd, an established attorney, became the first judge of the First Judicial Circuit of the Missouri Territory. He settled his family into a new town known as Columbia and worked there for many years. In 1840, he welcomed his 21-year-old niece into his Columbia home for the summer.
Mary Todd was an eligible bachelorette in her hometown of Springfield, Ill., and presumably went to visit family to take some time away from her many suitors. One of these suitors was a young attorney named Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln was as ambitious in love as he was in the courtroom and didn’t let the state line deter his pursuit of Mary. The two soon became engaged and in 1842, two years later, were wed.
Edward Bates was a Virginian who, after his service in the War of 1812, relocated to St. Louis. He arrived in the Missouri Territory in 1814 and began studying law. Bates served in the Missouri Legislature from 1822-1837, which paved the way for him to become a prominent figure in the Whig Party.
In the 1840s, his law practice received national attention by way of a freedom lawsuit filed by Polly Berry on behalf her daughter Lucy Berry. Bates successfully argued Lucy was a free woman since her mother, a former slave, was a free woman at the time of Lucy’s birth. This victory garnered political attention for Bates.
During the 1850s, Bates turned down an appointment by President Fillmore as Secretary of War and was considered by the Whig Party as a Vice Presidential candidate during the election of 1852. By the end of the decade, Bates had changed his political affiliation to the Republican Party. In 1860, he was a leading contender for the party’s nomination to the presidency heading into the Republican National Convention.
Bates was pitted against the presumptive favorite, New York Sen. William H. Seward, Ohio Gov. Salmon Chase and a former Congressman from Illinois – Abraham Lincoln.
After a contentious battle on the convention floor, Lincoln emerged as the party’s nominee. When Lincoln reached the White House, he tapped Edward Bates of Missouri to serve on the now historic “Team of Rivals” Cabinet as the United States Attorney General. Bates held the position through Lincoln’s first term. Lincoln’s appointment of Bates was also significant as it marked the first cabinet member to be appointed from west of the Mississippi River.
One of Abraham Lincoln’s most controversial decisions during the Civil War was to allow former slaves to serve in the Union Army. Two such groups were the 62nd and 65th United States Colored Infantries.
These dedicated soldiers and their commanding officers were stationed in Texas but were comprised mainly of Missourians. While still in service of the Union Army, these men began planning the establishment of an institution for education in their home state. The men raised more than $6,000 (roughly $92,000 in today’s money) to create the Lincoln Institute. Founded in January1866, the school was named after their former Commander-in-Chief and recently assassinated leader, Abraham Lincoln. The focus of Lincoln Institute was to benefit freed African-American slaves through the combination of study and labor.
Today, Lincoln Institute is Lincoln University. Located in Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City, the university is nationally recognized as a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). It boasts an enrollment of approximately 3,000 students and recently inaugurated its 19th president, Dr. Kevin A. Rome Sr.
While Lincoln University still focuses on educating African-Americans, it has a diverse student body. The school’s history is evident in the present with its motto, “Laborare et sudere” or “To Labor and Study” which comes straight from the soldiers’ dream. Further, the school celebrates its namesake in many ways including showcasing a bust of President Lincoln on its official seal.
On Feb. 12, remember President Lincoln through his Missouri connections. Consider taking a day-trip to Mary Todd’s summer getaway, Columbia. Or perhaps, visit to the Soldiers Memorial on the Quad of Lincoln University. Maybe even take some time to explore state judicial history at the Supreme Court Building. Celebrate our 16th president’s birthday by enjoying the ways his legacy touches us here in Missouri.
Written by Ebonee Woods, alumna of Lincoln University and executive liaison for the Missouri Division of Tourism.