Lincoln Ideas Forum 2018 Recap

On April 13, 2018, President Lincoln’s Cottage hosted our fourth annual Lincoln Ideas Forum. We launched this program in 2015 for the 150 anniversary of Lincoln’s last visit to the Cottage, the day before his assassination. Our goal is to commemorate the ideas he created and the work he accomplished while living here, as well as to highlight his unfinished work.

This year the forum, subtitled “We Can Not Escape History,” was inspired by Lincoln’s Second Annual Message to Congress in 1862. In his address, Abraham Lincoln implored his countrymen that future generations would be looking back at the Civil War era:

“Fellow-citizens, we can no escape history,” he wrote. “We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves.”

Speakers included: Daryl Davis (Actor, Musician, Race Relations Activist), Dr. Catherine Clinton (University of Texas, San Antonio), Jonathan Blanks (Cato Institute), Jennifer Mendelsohn (#ResistanceGenealogy) and moderator Dr. David Young (Cliveden).

For video of the event, click here.

For bio of the speakers, click here.

The Program

Below are the abstracts of the speakers’ talks:

Mr. Daryl Davis, “How can you hate me, when you don’t even know me?”
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. He dreamt that one day, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners would sit down together at the table of brotherhood. Author, musician, actor and race relations expert Daryl Davis brought that dream to reality by doing just that, with the most unlikely of tablemates. He is not White. He’s not even light-skinned. Make no mistake about it; he is Black. Yet, Davis, author of Klan-Destine Relationships and subject of the documentary Accidental Courtesy, has come in closer contact with members of the Ku Klux Klan than most White non-members and certainly most Blacks — short of being on the wrong end of a rope. What’s more? He continues to do so, making him one of the most unique race relations experts and activists today. Daryl shared his unique insights on effective and successful, nonviolent communication in the face of extreme adversity with those who hate him and how he won their respect and friendship.

Dr. Catherine Clinton, How the #MeToo movement is changing college campuses
Living through such troubling times, public culture has become so rough, so challenging, we often turn our faces backward. We cherish those politicians whose integrity reminds us that “we the people” might include all of us. Perhaps no leader was more acutely in tune with these democratic principles than Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln’s example affords important insights for today’s world. Our country has been coarsened by power-hungry, exploitative predators who ignore decency, flaunt the law, and create a sexual double standard that disproportionately disadvantages women. On college campuses where the vulnerability of young people is a well-known commodity, most predators roam relatively unmolested. The year 2017 witnessed a revolt against climates of intimidation and retaliation. Victims of sexual harassment are demanding a new era. In the wake of the “Weinstein effect,” with victims of sexual harassment airing personal testimonies, media (besides a healthy dose of self-examination) inspires vigilance. Students are paving the way with protests and demands for reform.

Mr. Jonathan Blanks, Hidden in Plain Sight: Revealing America’s Injustice System
Well before the Civil War, the United States struggled with slavery. Many Americans were against slavery, but abolition was a radical position throughout the early and mid-19th century. The practice, mostly confined to the South, became a national controversy due to the politics of westward expansion. But the majority of white Americans living in the North, knew slavery mostly as a concept—an unjust principle—having never seen the vivid reality of life in the cotton and sugar cane fields of the South. President Lincoln had to muster the political will to destroy an institution that had preexisted the founding of the country by hundreds of years. He had to convince the people that doing so was prudent and necessary to bring the nation closer to its founding ideal of individual liberty.

Today, there is a growing consensus that the United States is imprisoning far too many people. Americans believe in justice, and they believe in law. But we don’t really know how to undo what our country has done. Indeed, many Americans don’t know how the system really operates. They don’t understand how certain neighborhoods are policed; how America’s courtrooms function; and what it means to spend any time — let alone years or decades — locked in a cage. So many of constitutional and civil rights many of us take for granted don’t exist in this “justice” system. The civil rights challenge of our day is convincing the country that our current system is not just. It is not fair. It is not humane. We take our jails and prisons for granted — even necessary — but we’ve created a monstrosity that incarcerates millions of people and has no place in any nation which calls itself the “Land of the Free.”

Ms. Jennifer Mendelsohn, The Accidental Activist: #Resistancegenealogy
The talk outlined how a chance Facebook posting in 2013 caused Jennifer Mendelsohn to fall down the rabbit hole of genealogy research. After her very first research outing ended in the genealogical equivalent of a grand slam – reuniting her husband’s 95-year-old Holocaust survivor grandmother with first cousins she never knew she had – she became hopelessly hooked. Genealogy served as a welcome retreat into the historical past, but with the ascent of Donald Trump, she began to realize that historical issues surrounding immigration and refugees had surprising contemporary resonance and relevance. In early 2017, the two worlds collided when she began to do genealogical research on the most vocal anti-immigration critics – and repeatedly discovered that their own family stories very often closely mirrored those of the immigrants they tried to denigrate and exclude. The project, which has come to be known as #resistancegenealogy, seeks to use the historical record – ships’ manifests, naturalization papers, census records, etc. – to show the commonality and universality of the American immigrant experience. It’s a project that proves Lincoln’s assertion that we cannot escape history. (Her next few research projects are Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Congressman Louie Gohmert from Texas.)


After the program, we asked some of our partners to reflect on the Forum’s thematic quote of “We cannot escape history,” as well as the conversations that had occurred at the event.

PLC: What does the quote mean to you?

Catherine Clinton: I would say … we should embrace history. I appreciate that President Lincoln’s Cottage has that as the Lincoln Ideas Forum mantra, that’s wonderful. I appreciate it, but today we were talking about escaping history and I don’t think we can. We are in times where we think ‘there has never been anything like this,’ in terms of our presidential administration, but I still feel that looking back into the past, is so important, so instructive. What about the tariff? What about the wars in the middle east? What about issues of “#MeToo” and the treatment of women? All of that can be instructed by looking at the past and not ignoring it. The fact that there are multiple stands, multiple voices, I think Lincoln would welcome that. He welcomed in a cabinet of rivals, I mean he was ‘for’ multiple persons…multiple voices I hear in the other room in a lively discussion of what was going on in history. It’s exciting.”

PLC: The last part of Lincoln’s statement is “history has its eyes on us.” How do you think we’ll look back on this time, and how will people remember?

Jonathan Blanks: I hope they’ll sort of appreciate what we’re doing, not what we’re trying to do, but what we’re actually doing. I think so much of what the police are doing, the corrections officers, they’re trying to do the right thing. It’s not like they’re out here trying to harm people’s lives, unfortunately the way the system operates, the incentives that happen, end up inflicting harm. We need to find a better way to treat people, so in the future, I think they’re going to say that we’re doing it wrong. And hopefully they will understand that we were trying, but the fact of the matter is we need to change to make it better.

PLC: How do you think people will look back on what we’re doing now and what will they say; how will they remember this time?

Jennifer Mendelsohn: I guess I have to be honest and go with these are troubling times we’re living in. I keep thinking of people saying things like “remember when you were a kid and if I was asked what would I have done in Nazi Germany? Be that person now.” And I’m unfortunately aware of that all the time. I feel like, I’m not just going to let these things happen, and not take care of them, and not sound the alarm bells. I am doing my part to sort of fight back, and speak the truth to power. I hope that will be remembered fondly, if I’m being optimistic, I’d like to think that all these various forms of resistance we heard today will ultimately lead to change, and that down the road we’ll remember this as a time of great growth. We went through a dark period and we came out of it.


See below for some photos of the event, courtesy of Bruce Guthrie.

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