LEXINGTON, Ky.—As the nation celebrates the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s February 12, 1809, birth in Hardin County, Ky., the many connections between Transylvania University and the 16th President are worth recalling for how they illuminate the prominent roles in Lincoln’s personal and political lives that were played by alumni and others associated with this historic college.
Among those connections are the role of political hero to Lincoln played by the famed statesman Henry Clay, a former Transylvania professor and trustee; the legal acumen Lincoln relied upon when he appointed Transylvania graduates Samuel Freeman Miller to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1862 and James Speed as U.S. Attorney General in 1864; and the diplomatic skills provided by alumnus Cassius Clay, named Minister to Russia by Lincoln in 1861.
In his personal and family life, Lincoln returned to his native Kentucky to wed Mary Todd of Lexington, whose family included several Transylvanians, beginning with her father, Robert S. Todd, who entered Transylvania at age 14.
The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial is being celebrated throughout 2008 and 2009. As Transylvania takes part in that celebration, it harkens back to its history in the middle decades of the 19th century, a time when the University enjoyed a national prominence that coincided with Lincoln’s rise to the presidency. Transylvania was a fertile breeding ground for leaders in many areas of society during those years, and Lincoln called upon that expertise as he led the nation through one of its most bitter and critical eras.
Following are brief sketches of some of those people:
Henry Clay taught in the Transylvania law department from 1805-07, after which he served several terms as a trustee and remained a loyal friend and counselor to the University until his death in 1852. Known as the Great Compromiser, Clay achieved national and international fame as a statesman while serving in the Congress and as U.S. Secretary of State. Lincoln referred to Clay as his “beau ideal of a statesman” and said of Clay in his lengthy and moving eulogy, “His long and eventful life is closed. Our country is prosperous and powerful; but could it have been quite all it has been, and is, and is to be, without Henry Clay?”
Samuel Freeman Miller graduated from Transylvania in 1838 and supported Lincoln’s bid for the presidency in 1860. Lincoln appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1862, where he served until his death in 1890.
James Speed earned his law degree from Transylvania in 1833 and was an attorney, professor, and politician in Kentucky for many years. In 1864, Lincoln appointed him U.S. Attorney General, a post he held until 1866.
Cassius Clay, the outspoken emancipationist, attended Transylvania and was an early organizer of the Republican Party. After Lincoln named him Minister to Russia in 1861, Clay helped to lay the groundwork for the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867.
Montgomery Blair studied in the law school at Transylvania and later served as a U.S. district attorney for Missouri and as mayor of St. Louis. After Lincoln appointed him Postmaster General, he created several procedures seen in the modern postal system, including requiring postage from the sender and the return-receipt system.
Robert S. Todd, who studied at Transylvania, became Lincoln’s father-in-law with the marriage of his daughter, Mary Todd, to the young lawyer and politician in 1842.
George Rogers Clark Todd, Mary’s brother and a graduate of the Transylvania Medical Department, was Lincoln’s brother-in-law, as was Ninian Wirt Edwards, an 1833 Transylvania law school graduate, who was married to Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. It was in the Springfield, Ill., home of Ninian and Elizabeth that Lincoln first met Mary Todd.
A Lincoln photo journey
A modern-day Transylvanian with a Lincoln connection is photographer John Snell ’70, whose latest book, Through the Eyes of Lincoln, A Modern Photographic Journey, takes viewers and readers to Lincoln-related sites in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.
The hardbound, coffee-table book features 90-plus photos by Snell, along with other historic photos from the Library of Congress and other sources. The text is by author Ron Elliott.
The interesting and eclectic sites photographed by Snell include the confluence of Knob Creek and Rolling Fork River in Kentucky, where Lincoln’s father launched a raft bound for Indiana; the Knox College building that was the site of a Lincoln-Douglas debate; and the pew in the Washington, D.C., church where Lincoln worshipped.
Snell is the owner of John W. Snell Photography in Lexington.