Live Lincoln interview brings sense of history to State Fair

07/14/2013 12:00 AM

07/28/2013 6:14 PM

It was him, all right.

There's no mistaking the black stovepipe hat, black frock coat, waistcoat and black trousers; a beard accentuating the gaunt, melancholy countenance.

Abraham Lincoln sat in the heat of the Center Stage on Saturday at the State Fair, fielding questions from Vance W. Raye, presiding justice of the state's 3rd District Court of Appeal.

Raye, a descendant of Mississippi slaves, began the interview by thanking his guest (portrayed by Lincoln actor and scholar Jim Getty) for the abolition of slavery.

The justice quickly recounted some highlights of Lincoln's life before his first venture into politics as an unsuccessful candidate for the Illinois Legislature, then informed the 16th president, "We are here to talk primarily about the momentous event you were responsible for," referring to the struggle to rid the country of slavery.

The performance, sponsored by the appellate court and some other entities, was staged to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address.

Raye led Lincoln through a set of informed questions, extracting comments on some of his best-known speeches and eliciting reactions to some of the seminal events of Lincoln's life and times.

Let's listen in:

"How did you become interested in politics?" Raye asked.

In 1832, Lincoln recalled, fellow residents of New Salem, Ill., urged him to run for the state Legislature. They probably wanted him as their candidate, Lincoln speculated, because he was the only one in town with any formal education, consisting of perhaps 18 months.

During that campaign, Lincoln told Raye, he came out for the right of women to vote. "A bit before your time," the justice observed dryly.

"When did you first become aware of the slavery issue?" Raye asked.

Lincoln recalled that, at a young age, his family moved from Kentucky to Indiana, a non-slave state, and one reason was "the non-slave owners did not like to sit in the same pews at church with the slave owners."

Lincoln secured the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 1860.

With almost no support in the South, he swept the North and was elected, causing seven Southern slave states to secede from the Union and form the Confederacy.

Lincoln acknowledged to Raye he was surprised when, on April 12, 1861, the general in command of the Confederate forces around South Carolina's Charleston Harbor opened fire on the Union garrison holding Fort Sumter, signaling the start of the Civil War.

"I didn't think enough people in the South would follow their political leaders into war," Lincoln said. "I was wrong."

By the next year, many of Lincoln's advisers were pushing hard for abolition but, given that "the Constitution clearly protected slavery in the South," there was no easy path, Lincoln explained. Out of this quandary came the idea for the Emancipation Proclamation.

It was an executive order, based on Lincoln's constitutional authority as commander in chief, and took effect Jan. 1, 1863, as a war measure. It proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the 10 states that were still in rebellion, applying to 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves in the nation.

Almost 11 months later, Lincoln traveled to the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa., to make brief remarks. He delivered in two minutes one of the most lasting oratories in American history – as Raye described it, a speech that "I and millions of other schoolchildren have memorized."

When asked by Raye about it, Lincoln said, "I don't remember much applause. That's because I challenged them."

The occasion was the dedication of a national soldiers' cemetery on the site. But Lincoln pronounced the ground already consecrated by the men who had fought there, saying those assembled that day should "go home and figure out what they can do" to further the causes of freedom and unity.

Lincoln knew the Emancipation Proclamation would have doubtful force once the war was over, and so began his campaign to enact the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which formally abolished slavery.

The Senate passed the amendment in April 1864, but the House voted it down in June. Once Lincoln was re-elected in November, he intensified his effort, twisting arms as hard as he dared. The House narrowly passed it in January 1865, and it gained the required number of state ratifications by the following December, sadly after Lincoln's assassination the previous April.

"I had to hand out a few judgeships here and there" to get it through the House, he told Raye, who replied, "I'm glad you did that."

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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