If Abraham Lincoln were alive today...

If Abraham Lincoln were alive today...

Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, America's most revered president and master of the pithy quote.

Among his gems: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

Which raises the question: If he were alive today, would Lincoln have a Twitter account?

It's hard to say, said Lincoln expert James Cornelius, but as an "inveterate" newspaper reader Lincoln almost certainly would be surfing the Web.

The 16th president was "a real geek and superb politician," said Lincoln scholar Vernon Burton, a former UI professor of history now at Clemson University, "so he would have a Twitter account, a blog, and would probably be using social media and studying it like a social scientist to see what people were saying."

In honor of Lincoln's 205th birthday today, we asked the Lincoln experts what the 16th president would think of the Land of Lincoln today.

Life in the 21st century would be "unimaginable" to Lincoln, from the size of government to the vast educational, transportation and health care systems, said Cornelius, curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.

Burton likes to tell a story from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Donald, who authored a biography of Lincoln and was once asked what Lincoln would think about the busing crisis in Boston.

"Well," Donald said, "the first thing Mr. Lincoln would have said is, 'What is a bus?'"

He believes Lincoln would be amazed by the reach of technology today.

"He loved technology. He had to understand everything. He taught himself Euclidian geometry just to keep his mind sharp," Burton said.

Lincoln was an early adopter of the telegraph, was interested in new weapons and farm machinery, and is the only president with a scientific patent, Cornelius said. (It was a device for buoying boats stuck in low water; it never went into production.)

What would he be most surprised by?

"Probably space travel," Cornelius said.

One thing that would not surprise him: the political rancor in Springfield and Washington.

The situation was identical, or worse, when Lincoln was around, Cornelius said. He was president during the worst divide in U.S. history.

"It was awful in 1832, it was awful during the Civil War," Cornelius said.

In 1856, U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an abolitionist, with a cane on the Senate floor, nearly beating him to death, Burton said. Newspapers backed political parties, just as cable news and blogs now often divide along ideological lines, he said.

"Lincoln was used to messy politics and also the impasses," he said.

But now, as then, Lincoln wouldn't understand the "personal hatreds" reflected in some debates.

"He separated the ideas from the people. This was one of the things that made him such a great leader and such a great person: his lack of animosity, his lack of demonizing of people," Burton said.

People think of him as a wartime president, Burton said, but Lincoln was a compromiser for most of his political life. There were principles he would not compromise, such as those in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, Burton said.

"But he did not believe in extremes and extremism. Even in his law practice he would tell people to settle," he said. "Everybody else thought they were doing's God's will, so they were not about to compromise. Lincoln understood very clearly that we do not know God's will."

Lincoln might be amazed by the growth of government, Cornelius said. The percentage of the state economy tied to government is huge compared to his time, if you consider public schools, universities, Medicare and Medicaid, he said.

"Government occupies an unimaginably large part of our lives today, economically, socially, personally. Whereas in Lincoln's day, really the only contact you had with the federal government was the post office," he said.

At the end of the Civil War, when the national debt approached $3 billion, some people thought it could never be paid off, Cornelius said. It was eliminated within 20 years, thanks to a wave of new immigrants and a technology boom — and the fact that Lincoln was able to raise taxes, which had been extremely low before the war, he said.

Burton thinks Lincoln would be upset at the state's current financial crisis, as he was a fiscal conservative.

But he would be proud of the UI, part of the land-grant university system he created, and the public education system — though not the decline in financial support for education, Burton said.

"The very first public statement we have of his is about support for public education," Burton said. "He understood that if you were going to have a democracy you needed to have an educated citizenry."

The two scholars were hesitant to characterize how Lincoln might feel about social issues, such as gay marriage.

"We just don't know," Burton said. "What I would like to think is that he was a compassionate man who cared about people and wanted people to be treated fairly."

Websites regarding Abraham Lincoln:

The Lincoln Log is a searchable chronology of the life of Lincoln.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield.

What began as a hobby in 1995, Abraham Lincoln Online is a wealth of information about the 16th president, including copies of some of his letters and speeches.

Here's the Census page that includes Lincoln's family in 1850 and 1860 in Springfield.

The Lincoln Memorial's website: "In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever." 

The website for Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated.

Lincoln's Tomb in Springfield.

The New Salem state historic site.

The Library of Congress' collection of more than 8,000 Civil War era glass negatives and related prints. 

Lincoln's birthplace in Kentucky.

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