Former Knox President Roger Taylor was shocked to find out that the plaque in his office was wrong. Lincoln had never climbed out of the window in Taylor’s Old Main office, he had climbed out of a window on the second story.
“It couldn’t have been the window in [Taylor’s] office because clearly it was covered up by the stand, which was 12 feet high,” Professor Emeritus of English Douglas Wilson said. “So [Taylor] says, ‘I think you can carry research too far.’”
In their time running the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox, Wilson and Professor Emeritus of History Rodney Davis have found a few other problems with signage around Knox. The plaque on Old Main quoting Lincoln is actually Lincoln quoting Henry Clay. And it was said at the first Lincoln-Douglas Debate in Ottawa, Ill., not at Knox.
More importantly for them, they have been a major part of a field that has received a lot of renewed attention in the last 20 years.
“At the end of the [20th] century, just as we had gotten started for our own reasons, we discovered that there were a whole bunch of other people who were suddenly getting interested in Lincoln and having new things to say about him,” Wilson said.
Davis started the Lincoln Studies Center in 1997 after retiring from teaching and Wilson joined him a year later. They had planned the Center as a way to continue a collaboration they had started when they introduced the American Studies major after coming to Knox in the early 1960s. They have stayed busy since then.
“I sometimes say, this was to be a retirement project,” Wilson said. “I call it a failed retirement project.”
In 1999 the Center was contacted by the Library of Congress to see if Davis and Wilson would transcribe some of Lincoln’s papers that were being digitized. Despite wanting to continue their own work, the pair agreed and worked on the digitization process until 2002.
While the Lincoln Studies Center was working on the transcriptions, Taylor started another project to look into Knox history. He turned to Owen Muelder, son of former history professor and academic dean Hermann R. Muelder, the Red Room’s namesake. At the time, Owen was the Director of Alumni Affairs.
Owen began to look into the history of Knox and its relationship with the Illinois anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad. In 2004, he retired from his position at Knox and became the Director of the Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
“It changed my life and in that sense I suppose I didn’t quite see what was coming. But it has been a delightful experience,” Muelder said.
The Freedom Center has now been acknowledged by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati as well as by the National Parks Service Network to Freedom project.
“It’s always nice to toot your own horn locally, but it’s therefore even more satisfying, I’d say, when you have outside entities examine your credentials or your story and verify it outside of your own community,” Muelder said. “So we essentially got the bookends that you’d ideally want – we had the most significant private organization . . . and the Network to Freedom recognized and sanctioned Knox as one of the most important Underground locations in American history.”
Since their creations, both centers have published multiple books and become trusted experts in their respective fields – not just in Illinois, but throughout the country.
Davis and Wilson have focused largely on the biographical contributions of William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner. Their first book, written before they started the Center, was a new critical edition of Herndon’s biography of Lincoln, which had long been left out of mainstream Lincoln studies because it relied on interviews that were done after Lincoln’s death with people who knew him as a young man rather than official or contemporary documents, which were scarce in Illinois during Lincoln’s childhood.
Since then, they have also released a volume of Herndon’s letters and are currently working on a book collecting a series of lectures Herndon did alongside his incidental writings which will likely end their series.
“[Herndon’s lectures] have been published but nobody ever consults them; they’ve never been in the mainstream of Lincoln scholarship. And yet they say lots of very interesting things about Lincoln and [Herndon] has a lot of things to say about him,” Wilson said.
Wilson cited Lincoln’s marriage difficulties and his two nervous breakdowns as a young man as examples of topics Herndon brought up but that had been largely left out of mainstream Lincoln studies.
Their series at the University of Illinois Press has also featured a biography of Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and a biography of Noah Brooks, a childhood friend of Lincoln who was an important source for Lincoln’s mindset during White House years. Lincoln was a guarded man and so intimate information about his thoughts is rare.
“This biography shows just how close they were,” Wilson said. “There’s never been a biography of Brooks, and this one shows that it’s all in letters and journals … there’s every reason to think that he’s perfectly honest and he’s authentic and he really is this close to Lincoln.”
Owen has also published books, one on the Underground Railroad in Illinois and the other on Theodore Dwight Weld, an anti-slavery activist. He said that Galesburg and Knox acted as a western hub for the Underground Railroad, having been founded by abolitionists and situated less than 100 miles from the slave state of Missouri.
“There are few communities in the Middle West that have a more significant history tied to history of abolitionism and Underground Railroad activities than Galesburg,” Muelder said. “And I’m the fortunate person who gets to tell that story.”
In addition to the books, Owen has published multiple articles and has given over 250 speeches in his time running the center, including to the United States Capitol Historical Society in 2012.
Currently, both centers are uncertain of what the future will hold for them once the current directors fully retire. However, the researchers see the importance of the continued study of history and in continuing the original goal of keeping Knox’s history alive.
“The problem, the issue of racism in America has never been resolved,” Muelder said. “And in fact is still very much with us today … For me that means people need to examine the history of the institution of slavery honestly and forthrightly in order for our society to make progress to deal with the tragedy of racism in America.”
Owen pointed out that the Underground Railroad was one of the first integrated movements in the U.S. The religious ideas of abolitionists who came out of the Second Great Awakening, like George Washington Gale, led them to a broadened understanding of the words of the Declaration of Independence, that ‘all men are created equal.’
“In fact, I don’t think Jefferson really meant it. After all, he was a slave owner. What Jefferson probably meant was that all white, property-owning men are created equal. But it was a powerful set of words that became repeated over and over again and that Americans took great pride in,” Muelder said.
For Wilson and Davis, the work of a historian is never over. Wilson said that each new generation brings itsown questions to history and that therefore there is always a space for new studies and work. Lincoln, as one of the best known U.S. presidents, will always be a topic of focus in their view.
“Every generation needs a new look at [history] and this is the way it is. If you go back and look, there are generations of Lincoln biography and Napoleon biography and so forth. So, it’s always important,” Wilson said.