The state of Illinois celebrates its bicentennial this month and its motto “Land of Lincoln” tells you all you need to know about the state’s greatest source of pride: the 16th president. But four men with Illinois connections have been president. And U. of I. history professor Marsha Barrett makes the case that all of them – Lincoln, Grant, Reagan and Obama – changed the nation in some way. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Abraham Lincoln has been so mythologized for his role in the Civil War and emancipation. But what was fundamental about his influence?
For many scholars of executive power, Lincoln’s presidency is notable because he expanded and centralized the powers of the presidency in ways that had been unseen until that time. In the face of the crisis of secession, the collapse of the Union and civil war, Lincoln navigated our nation through terrifying times in a way that forever altered the office of the presidency and the nation.
While that’s significant, I find his presidency to be transformational for the nation because, in the name of preserving the Union, he defended democracy within the political constraints of the era. African-Americans, abolitionists and Radical Republicans took up that cause and ensured that the Civil War would actually become an opportunity to guarantee freedom for people of African descent in all corners of the nation. Ultimately, that agitation set the nation on a course to one day become more inclusive and egalitarian, a process that is unfinished and often contested.
Ulysses S. Grant was born and raised in Ohio, so what’s the Illinois claim on him? And what’s the counter to “scandal-plagued,” often the first words applied to his presidency?
Grant’s connection to Illinois lies in his move to Galena in 1860 after a career in the Army and failed business ventures in Missouri. The outbreak of the Civil War brought him back to military service the following year, and he is remembered more as the general who led the Union to victory than as the 18th U.S. president.
While Grant may not have been a transformational president, he led during a period of major transition when the nation sought a new normal after the ravages of the Civil War. He has long been disregarded or disparaged because of scandals in his administration and an economic depression during his second term. However, his presidency has received favorable attention in recent decades.
The tumult of the times in which Grant served had a great deal to do with the long-standing impression that he was a leader ill-equipped for the times. Grant oversaw post-war Reconstruction, often maligned by white Southerners who resented the federal government’s intervention – in part because it sought to protect the citizenship rights of African-Americans – but also by white Northerners who saw it as too expensive and favorable to a racial group they deemed inferior.
The difficulties of Grant’s presidency in relation to Reconstruction and race relations, in particular, reveal the failure of the nation to protect the rights of all of its citizens. One could argue that Grant did not do enough to protect African-Americans from racialized terror in the South, but his efforts to end Ku Klux Klan violence and protect African-Americans’ ability to vote were unmatched by his 19th-century successors.
Although marred by his political inexperience and missteps, Grant’s presidency also points to the limitations of his office. Ultimately, it would take the work of generations of African-Americans and their allies to pressure the federal government to enforce the promises of Reconstruction.
Ronald Reagan spent most of his adult life in California, yet he’s the only president both born and raised in Illinois. Many would say we’re still feeling the effect of the “Reagan Revolution.”
Reagan, who was born in Tampico, Illinois, often earns the title of a transformational president because his legacy has loomed so large over American politics. Like his political idol, Franklin Roosevelt, he helped forge a political realignment that lured voters across party lines and ultimately reoriented mainstream American politics.
Reagan helped normalize an emphasis on deregulation that had begun before his 1980 election, along with a skepticism – and even rejection – of government domestic spending that remains a guiding principle for many Americans. Though scholars debate the impact of his economic and foreign policies, it does seem that his ability to turn once-marginal conservative ideas and rhetoric into winning strategies helped reshape for many mainstream politicians their vision of what is possible in American politics.
Reagan’s political dominance left many in the Democratic establishment scrambling to reorient the party toward the center – a trend that continues to this day, although it is being actively reconsidered. The presidential nominees of the major political parties since the mid-1980s have run on policy agendas and a logic that have yet to set aside the ideas popularized by Reagan.
Finally we have Barack Obama, whose connection to Illinois is the flip of Reagan’s; Obama came to the state only after college. So soon after he left office, what can we say about the difference he made?
It is difficult as a historian to determine the transformational nature of a presidency that only ended in 2017. Many commentators have concluded that Obama was not a transformational figure because the political realities solidified by Reagan remain prevalent today.
It is far too soon, however, to identify the political possibilities that were set in motion by young people – particularly for those from groups that have remained far from the levers of power – who were suddenly able to envision themselves in the White House because of the Obamas. I would assert that the work he and Michelle Obama did to diversify and democratize the White House – the people’s house – could leave a legacy of inclusivity that will come to exemplify his time in office and the transformational nature of his legacy.
Whatever the outcome, it is important to remember that regardless of the accomplishments of these four presidents with ties to Illinois, the transformational power of the presidency has often resided by and large with the people who were either inspired by or moved to challenge the person elected to the highest office.