Why Obama Keeps Going Back to One Small Illinois College

Knox College wasn't just the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates--it's a place of special importance to the 44th President

  • Share
  • Read Later
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., on June 4, 2005.
Knox College

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., on June 4, 2005.

In early June of 2005, less than six months after he was sworn in as a U.S. Senator, Barack Obama spoke at a graduation ceremony at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. In his address, Obama defended the government’s role in creating and sustaining the middle class, themes he would later carry into two successful presidential campaigns. “Our economic dominance depended on individual initiative. It depended on a belief in the free market,” he said. “But it also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together, and that everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.”

Obama returns today to the tiny liberal arts college for what the White House has billed as a major economic address. Knox has a special place in the President’s heart and in American history. “It’s the place where I gave my first big speech after I had been elected to the U.S. Senate,” Obama said at a recent event in Washington. Wednesday marks his third visit–once as a Senate candidate, once as a Senator and now as commander-in-chief–adding to a long history of presidents and political figures who have left a mark on the college.

Founded in 1837 by religious missionaries who opposed slavery, Knox College was, from its beginning, a progressive institution that welcomed women and people of color. In 1858, the college was the site of the fifth of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, where Abraham Lincoln, challenging incumbent Senator Stephan A. Douglas, debated the nature and future of slavery.

On October 7, 1858, a day after a heavy rainstorm and in the middle of a cold snap, more than 15,000 people packed the campus. Douglas argued, as he had before, that the Declaration of Independence, as it was written by white men, was only meant to apply to white men, while Lincoln argued that the Declaration was intended for all men.

“I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil,” Lincoln said that day. He knew ridding the country of slavery would be difficult, but Lincoln professed a desire for “a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.”

The next two presidents to visit Knox were Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley, who came to celebrate anniversaries of the Lincoln-Douglas debate. Theodore Roosevelt made an appearance in 1900 when he was the nominee for Vice President, and his eventual White House successor, William Howard Taft, visited Knox to mark the Lincoln-Douglas debate’s semicentennial in 1908.

Both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush spoke at Knox as Republican candidates for the presidency. In March 1988, Senator Bob Dole, Bush’s rival, tried to confront Bush in a face-to-face debate at the school. But with Bush speaking at the invitation-only Lincoln Day Dinner in Memorial Gymnasium, Dole had to settle for a press conference at the college’s Old Main.

When asked how such a small school has managed to attract so many presidents, Knox President Teresa Amott points to the college’s anti-slavery roots and the Lincoln-Douglas debate. “That history tends to set precedent,” she says. Two years after Obama spoke at Knox’s graduation, Bill Clinton delivered the commencement address, which, like all presidential visits, was an enormous event for the school. “We are a small liberal arts college, and to have a person of that kind of distinction is wonderful for the campus,” Amott says.

But for Obama, Galesburg isn’t just a city of historical significance where he gave his first major speech as a Senator–it’s a place where he can illustrate his political philosophy. With a population of about 32,000 and a median income of just over $17,000, Galesburg exemplifies American communities struggling with an evolving economy in which technological developments and globalization have caused rapid, and sometimes painful change. In 2004, the Maytag plant–at the time the city’s largest private employer–shut down, leaving hundreds unemployed. Two years after the recession, unemployment in Galesburg is around 8 percent. “We are a middle class city, a city built on manufacturing and on the railway,” Amott says. “I think these are things that are important to many people in public service and certainly to this President.”

For an idea of what Obama might say later today, his 2005 commencement speech is a useful guide. “Ten or twenty years down the road, that old Maytag plant could re-open its doors as an Ethanol refinery that turns corn into fuel,” he said. “Down the street, a biotechnology research lab could open up on the cusp of discovering a cure for cancer. And across the way, a new auto company could be busy churning out electric cars. The new jobs created would be filled by American workers trained with new skills and a world-class education.”

It was perhaps a far-fetched vision from a young, idealistic Senator only beginning his national political career. And so far, none of those things have come to pass in Galesburg. But a century and a half ago, Knox College hosted a debate between two skilled orators grappling with the greatest moral issue of their time. They probably couldn’t imagine a future in which a black Senator, then President, laid out his own vision of a more perfect union at Knox College.

11 comments
JohnDahodi
JohnDahodi

WHAT IF ROMNEY WOULD HAVE BEEN PRESIDENT?

President Romney in the White House would have carried out the following tasks in his 200 days:

(i) Would have repealed the Obama-care; Healthcare providers stocks would have been doubled.

(ii) Would have involved America in war with Syria and Iran too. God knows these wars would have continued by this time or he might have declared 'Mission Accomplished" sign on the White House.

(iii) Income tax rates of the rich and super rich would have reduced by cutting several more public welfare programs, school fund and of course interest rate on College Students.

(iv) Many more large and small sick companies would have been closed at once and like Bain Capital would have bought them over at fire sale price sending million of workers home.

(v) Stock market might have gone up somewhat but unemployment would have increased a bit high.

(vi) All neocons and right wing experts and scholars would have occupied the Media, White House, U N and government offices.

(vii) The bottom line; Poor and middle class would have started feeling additional pains; but rich and super rich would have been jubilant. 

dr.milanzm1963
dr.milanzm1963

During Pr. Obama second term I gave my support to President for “Economic Patriotism”, gun control, cyber security, immigration reform and climate change ( investing in Green Energy, is the best way to cut CO2 emission and to reduce our dependence on foreign oil)…American people need RESULTS, NOT words. My the biggest concern to move this country FASTERforward in right direction is GRIDLOCKin Congress (Gallup poll on 07.17.13. show that ONLY 15 % Americans support Congress)?! If President is limit with 2 terms, why NOT to limit ALL members of Congress with 4-5 terms?

rivers
rivers

There are wonderful prospect in obama speech,now actually there are plentiful biotechnology centers and auto companies and worldclass education graduation. the major reason of the high unemployment rate is that american import so many products from abroad with low quality. strong safe regulations should put into the process.

RudyHaugeneder
RudyHaugeneder

He's a big faker.  I distrust this president as much as any since the last honest president, Jimmy Carter, was thrown out of office for being too honest.

To quote Charlie Brown of cartoon fame -- a big step up from any president -- the words: When things begin to look up, it is time to look out, or, more wisely:  No problem is so big or so complicated that it can't be run away from -- QE or not.

There you have it: Another in a succession of 1% mouthpiece presidents, certainly including Bush 1 and 2, Bill Clinton, and Reagan. Only President Carter spoke for and represented the people. Those who think otherwise have been indoctrinated by the 1% and are lost: Probably the American majority.

AnitraTaylorGrimes
AnitraTaylorGrimes

Galesburg is my hometown.  I haven't lived there since 1997.  But I am proud to say that our little town feels honored to have the President pay us another visit.  I know there are those who don't agree with his policies but that should not take away the fact that he has been here three times.  How many other small towns can say that?  Just wish I could be there to see him.

rivers
rivers

Democracy is in position in US, but in many other countries people arent entitled to enjoin the equality.then Knox college were focus by several presidents. the sole reason is this school represent people spirit ,unyielding determination for equility and freedom. only when human rights and voice and will are respected ,us will enjoin more continuing prosperous

ChristinaA.Wilson
ChristinaA.Wilson

Start creating money straight away... Get longer along with your family by doing jobs that solely need for you to own a laptop and an online access and you'll be able to have that at your home. begin observing to $8000 a month> w­w­w.W­O­R­K­7­0.ℂ­o­m

elfribo
elfribo

Economic Vision did you say? The guy is blind

sedj4wd1
sedj4wd1

They will never Secure the Border ..Methadone Clinics are a muti billion $ business and Obama care will make good people pay for the worst of our population. My town we now have 5 drug stores in my town in New Hampshire and 3 gas stations what does that tell you? Obamacare is care for people on with drug habits and good people to pay for methadone clinics.. hospital beds will fill beds like airports fill seats..There will be so much fraud from billing to even people being kept in Hospitals for the money they can get from insurance company's.. This is not the way to equality but will separate us domestically and colonize us all ..  Our Government is the biggest cause of this they will never Secure the border they make to much money on seized cash and property .. The inside trading of drug manufacturing and the kick backs is in the trillions.. Who do you believe own these Methadone Clinics ? Our government officials I bet..We are suckers to the biggest drug lords .. Our own Government .. witch is worse the drugs they are addicted to or the Methadone they make them pay for???? that is legal ? 

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@elfribo  

but he's sooo progressive and cool and believes in change, so we shouldn't hold the fact that he's doing a terrible job against him. it's not his fault. it's the republicans' fault for not going along with with his stupiditiy

YeahRt
YeahRt

@cjh2nd @elfribo Wish you guys had half the outrage when the Bush spending fire was on. Oh I forgot, right wingers don't want to spend to recover when not in power or cut when in power.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,106 other followers