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Historians: Lincoln paved way for North Dakota

Jonathan Harper, left, and James O'Rourke measure a painting by artist Jonathan Twingley on Wednesday while setting up an Abraham Lincoln exhibit at the Rourke Museum in Moorhead. (David Samson/The Forum)1 / 3
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Watercolor paintings by Trygve Olson are part of the Lincoln exhibit at the Rourke Museum in Moorhead. (David Samson/The Forum)3 / 3

FARGO - The United States has many reasons to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday today.

North Dakota, the union's 39th state, can probably thank the nation's 16th president for its existence.

Lincoln signed legislation approving the first transcontinental railroads, paving the way for creation of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Fargo was born when the NP line crossed the Red River and North Dakota itself was a child of the railroads, according to Dave Danbom, a professor of history at North Dakota State University.

"It (North Dakota) probably wouldn't even have developed into a state without rail transportation," said Danbom.

The Homestead Act, signed by Lincoln in 1862, opened the Northern Plains to settlement and, like the railroads, helped ensure that North Dakota and South Dakota would become states.


Danbom said measures Lincoln signed reflect his view of the role of government:

"We're not going to coddle you, necessarily, or assure your success. But we're going to put you in a position where you have the opportunity to succeed," said Danbom.

He said Lincoln's signing of the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which gave rise to colleges like North Dakota State University, was another example of Lincoln's belief in giving people opportunities.

What Lincoln and others wanted, according to Danbom, was to create schools that offered a liberal education and a measure of practicality: like training in agriculture, engineering, and domestic science.

"They (land grant colleges) were designed for average people who were not normally considered college material - sons and daughters of farmers," said Danbom.

Two Lincolns

"There are so many different ways to view and interpret Lincoln," said Rick Collin, communications and education director for the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

"Here in the West, we look at the Lincoln who signed the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land Grant Act. We look at the prairie lawyer, who rose to the highest office in the land with only one year of formal schooling," said Collin.

"And then,'' he added, "you have the eastern Lincoln, the Lincoln of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address.

"Lincoln really is a man for all seasons," said Collin, who serves as North Dakota's liaison to the national Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

'Secular saint'

Lincoln may be more than that, according to Danbom.

"He's the greatest president ever, hands down," said Danbom, listing Lincoln's accomplishments:

"He dealt with the largest crisis in the history of the United States. He had a vision and an ability to inspire people that were rare," said Danbom, adding Lincoln had a thoughtful way of explaining the complexities of the Civil War.

"Look at his second inaugural address, when he talks about the war as being a judgment from God for allowing the institution of slavery to exist," said Danbom.

"The interesting thing about it is, he doesn't use God to beat up on his enemies, or to say, 'We're right and they're wrong.' He says it's a judgment on the entire country and we've all been complicit.

"I think he's the only president after a couple of the founders, like Jefferson and Washington, who almost became a secular saint," said Danbom.

Exhibit, play offer looks at Lincoln

If you want to celebrate the bicentennial birthday of the Great Emancipator, two events offer insight into the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.

North Dakota State University alumnus Mark Neukom returns to his alma mater for the one-man play, "Mister Lincoln."

Across the river, at the Rourke Art Museum, a handful of area artists offer different looks at Lincoln with "Happy Birthday Uncle Abe." The works vary from portraits by contemporary illustrator Jonathan Twingley, to Civil War era artifacts. The show opens Friday and runs through March 8.