Abraham Lincoln and Nebraska

Probably no individual is more firmly enshrined in Nebraska tradition than Abraham Lincoln, born February 12, 1809. Our capital city and one of our large counties are named in his honor. His statue by Daniel Chester French, backed by a tablet of polished granite on which the Gettysburg Address is engraved, dominates the west approach to the state capitol.

As a war president, Lincoln naturally exercised a great deal of influence over the lives of all Americans. Because Nebraska was a territory during the Civil War, the President exercised much influence over its affairs.

All executive and judicial officers of the territory, for example, were appointed by the President. A commission, dated April 13, 1865 - the day of Lincoln’s assassination - reappoints Alvin Saunders as governor of Nebraska Territory. The commission is in the archives of History Nebraska (formerly known as the Nebraska State Historical Society). According to a statement by Saunders, the commission was signed just before the President left for the theater where he met his death.

Undoubtedly Lincoln exercised his greatest influence on the development of Nebraska in selecting Omaha as the starting point for the Union Pacific Railroad.

Strictly speaking, the President’s order designated a point “within the limits of the township in Iowa opposite the Town of Omaha,” as the place of the beginning. Additionally, the citizens of Council Bluffs have always maintained their city was the eastern terminus of the road. Even though the Iowans were upheld by the Supreme Court in that view, Omahans have always contended their city was the starting point of the railroad.

Omaha reaped rich rewards from President Lincoln’s decision. The significance of that decision in the city’s development was recognized from the beginning.

Groundbreaking ceremonies took place in Omaha December 2, 1863 - the very day the word of Lincoln’s decision was received. In less than an hour after receipt of the telegram, a committee on arrangements was appointed, and by 2:00 that afternoon a crowd of 1,000 had assembled at the place where ground was to be formally broken.

Though it was to be many months before actual construction got underway, the die had been cast. President Abraham Lincoln had assured Omaha’s future.

University of Nebraska’s 150th Birthday

The University of Nebraska counts February 15, 2019, as its 150th birthday. It was on that day in 1869 the Nebraska legislature passed the act which established the University (though classes didn’t begin until 1871). 

Not everyone was in favor of starting a university. In frontier Nebraska, many people thought it was an unnecessary luxury. Others thought it was simply premature. After all, Nebraska didn’t even have a state system of public high schools yet! The Omaha Herald said Nebraska needed a university “about as much as a cat needs two tails.”

Still others believed higher education should be under the control of the churches as it had been in the eastern states. Secular state universities were still a relatively new idea.

Nebraska benefitted from the Morrill Act, an 1862 federal law that provided federal land grants to fund state universities. The law was meant not only to promote traditional classical education, but also the “useful” arts, sciences, and professions.

By state law, Nebraska combined its university and its agricultural college into one institution. Ag colleges were another controversial idea—many people derided agricultural science as “book farming.” Nebraska City editor and politician J. Sterling Morton wrote in 1859 that ag colleges produced “kid-gloved, cologne-scented, pampered gentry, with a smattering of science—with a strong compounded laziness.”

The University started out in a single building. Four stories tall and with a big tower, “University Hall” was larger than the state capitol. Built at great expense, the building was drafty and so poorly built that its roof leaked and its foundation soon began to crumble.

The education itself wasn’t the best, either. The first professors were local ministers who taught traditional subjects by traditional methods: students memorized and recited their lessons. Ambitious early students may have gotten more out of campus literary societies, in which students presented papers and held debates.

It took a good twenty years for the university to develop into a more modern institution with professional faculty, lectures, and research-based learning. But even in the early days, the University was founded on high ideals. Education was to be available to all, a resource for the entire state. The original charter called for free tuition and said that “no person shall, because of age, sex, color, or nationality, be deprived of the privileges of this institution.”

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