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

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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.