News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 1, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Climbing the rungs of Lincoln’s Ladder

TERRE HAUTE — One crucial quality helped Abraham Lincoln become America’s greatest president.

Courage? Political savvy? Wisdom? Moral character?

All equipped Lincoln for his immense task, but one particular trait allowed him to strengthen each of those virtues, day by day, month after month, year upon year.

He never quit learning. Unlike the pomposity displayed on 21st-century talk radio and cable TV news, Lincoln did not insist he was always right. He listened to allies and rivals, and included both in his administration. He allowed scenes of injustice, human frailties and displays of heroism to guide his opinions. He grew in mind and soul.

“He never stopped evolving,” said Guy Fraker, author of a new book about the 23 formative years Lincoln spent as a lawyer traveling Illinois’ Eighth Judicial Circuit. That daily sharpening in the country courtrooms and town squares of Danville, Urbana, Charleston, Paris and other central Illinois towns set Lincoln on a path with destiny. Fittingly, Fraker titled his book, “Lincoln’s Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit.” Also fitting is Fraker’s occupation — he’s a retired Illinois attorney, who practiced in several of those same Eighth Circuit communities.

Interest in Lincoln, always high, is particularly pitched right now. The Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln,” starring two-time Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis, hits theaters on Nov. 16. It centers on Lincoln’s dramatic last few months in office, as the bloody Civil War over slavery ends, and the 16th president strives to heal the divided nation, only to be assassinated at the brink of his second term. Time magazine devoted the cover story of its Nov. 5 issue (now on newstands) to the movie, bearing the headline, “What Would Lincoln Do?”

Amid the swirl of attention, national media outlets have sought out Fraker’s expertise on Lincoln’s earlier life. On Tuesday, he talked Abe on the NPR program “On Point,” generated by WBUR in Boston. “It’s perfect for me,” said Fraker, who lives in Bloomington, Ill. His agenda this month also includes appearances in two local cities significant in Lincoln’s life — Paris and Terre Haute. Fraker will discuss “Lincoln’s Ladder” from 12:10 to 1:10 p.m. Nov. 28 in the Vigo County Public Library, and then sign copies of the book later that, at 7 p.m. (Central time) at the Edgar County Historical Society, 414 N. Main St., Paris.

Both communities were rungs on Lincoln’s climb to the presidency.

“The Terre Haute element, I think, is untapped,” Fraker said.

In a nutshell, the associations Lincoln built with key Republican lawyers from Terre Haute, who practiced in Paris, too, helped him secure the party’s presidential nomination years later. In the 1860 convention, the Indiana delegates gave Lincoln unanimous support, boosting him to the top of the Republican ticket. “That was critical,” Fraker said.

He not only practiced law at the Edgar County Courthouse, but also Lincoln developed friendships and acquaintances with Paris residents, and had relatives there. Notably, many Southern sympathizers and pro-slavery types lived in and around Paris, Fraker said. Long before Lincoln ran for president, he learned to deal with opposing views. In some of the other 13 county seats on the Eight Judicial Circuit, especially those on its northern loop, residents staunchly opposed slavery.

Abhorred by slavery, Lincoln the lawyer was being shaped to someday lead a torn nation through its darkest hours.

“It was like the North and the South,” Fraker said of the different Eighth Circuit populations. “So that’s where he had to moderate his views.”

His “moderation” often gets misunderstood. Lincoln always detested slavery as evil, but gradually transformed his opinion on equal rights for African-Americans, Fraker explained. “That’s where we see the evolution,” the author added. At a speech at Paris on Sept. 7, 1858 — in the midst of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates — the future president made comments on racial equality that were mainstream in an 1850s context, Fraker said, but offensive by 2012 standards. Within six years, the traumatic Civil War vastly altered Lincoln’s thinking.

A primary influence in his change, Fraker said, “was the courage and bravery of the black troops in the war.”

By 1865, in his second inauguration address, Lincoln “was much more enlightened,” he added. With slavery and the war nearing an end, Lincoln’s faith also transformed, in Fraker’s view. That 1864 inaugural speech “almost read like a sermon,” Fraker said. In it, Lincoln reaffirmed the despicable nature of slavery and, yet, avoided scolding the South, where he was largely reviled.

“He did not judge them harshly because of their judgment of him,” Fraker said.

The inauguration audience included Lincoln’s eventual assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and his co-conspirators. Within a month, Lincoln’s life had ended.

The Union, though, had been saved. Slavery was abolished. And, Lincoln called for American to bind up its wounds and unify.

His ability to bring a battered nation to the start on a long, long, long road of recovery was born on the roads of eastern Illinois, when Lincoln and fellow lawyers rode horseback from town to town, mixing with the locals, studying the system of justice, and learning. Always learning.

“Everything important in Lincoln’s life is rooted in the circuit,” Fraker said.

“It’s a colorful, wonderful story,” he continued. “These guys were, in the evenings, in the taverns, riding horses, swimming the rivers. And, yet, you have to remember, one of them became the greatest president in history.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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