National / News / October 23, 2008

Illinois to honor Knox Lincoln scholars

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has announced that Rodney Davis and Douglas Wilson, Professors Emeritus and co-directors of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox, will be among a select group of people from around the world to receive a Bicentennial edition of the Order of Lincoln, the highest honor that can be granted to individuals by the state of Illinois.

The awards will be presented Feb. 7, 2009 at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. Recipients will include authors, museum curators, professors, and artists who have contributed to both the preservation of Lincoln’s past and the continuation of his spirit.

Davis and Wilson reflected on the pathways that led each of them to study Lincoln. Over the past ten years, this has resulted in three co-produced books as well as three more written by Wilson alone. Their most recent collaboration has been to publish the first critical edition of the text of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Davis noted that a pivotal moment for him was the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Carl Sandburg, recalling, “When I was put in charge of the section featuring Sandburg as a Lincoln biographer, it drove me to think of Lincoln as never before.”

He also said, “My colleague and I team-taught a course in the mid-1990s on Jefferson and Lincoln, which evolved into our eventual decision to research and write about Lincoln. We called it our ‘retirement project’.”

This interest subsequently led to much more involvement than the pair had initially predicted, including co-founding the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox — which Wilson now jokingly refers to as “a failed retirement project.”

Wilson, too, credited forays into Jefferson studies as something that pointed him in the direction of Lincoln.

“I think the major catalyst was studying Jefferson because that led to the idea of doing a comparison between Jefferson and Lincoln. This was especially interesting because Jefferson had been born into wealth, whereas Lincoln started out with nothing,” Wilson said.

Wilson also expressed his pleasure that the Lincoln Academy had chosen to honor some pairs rather than individuals.

“It’s very gratifying that the Academy is recognizing us as a pair, because it acknowledges that projects are often better with two heads than one. We not only benefit from sharing in the division of work, but it is also enriching to have a mixture of perspectives to build from,” Wilson said.

As President Taylor said, “Rodney Davis and Douglas Wilson have deservedly become household names in Lincoln scholarship. That was vividly brought home to me at the recent Lincoln Colloquium in Harbach. At a panel discussion in front of about 400 people, James McPherson was asked a question about the debates, and he handed the microphone to Douglas Wilson — that, to me, said it all.”

Ever active, Davis and Wilson have an assortment of future plans in the works that should continue to shed light on our understanding of Lincoln as a whole.

“We are getting started on a project to collect writings on Lincoln by his law partner Herndon, who co-wrote a classic biography on Lincoln, but he also produced a large body of casual, informal writings on Lincoln that has never been published before now,” Davis said.

Deanna Wendel


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