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In defense of Lincoln: Why the University of Wisconsin should keep its famous Abraham Lincoln statue

OPINION: A campus without this statue would be a campus ashamed of its past, and afraid of its future

A few weeks ago, I reported on a student movement to remove UW-Madison’s Abraham Lincoln statue, and ever since then I have been thinking about what our campus would look like without Lincoln.

For those of you who have yet to see the statue in person, it’s a beautiful sight. Lincoln sits atop the common passing area Bascom Hill, watching over the students from his armchair with a relaxed yet stern demeanor while also gazing onward toward the Wisconsin capitol building.

The statue sits on Bascom as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Morrill Act into law, which allowed the creation of land grant universities. Without this act, the University of Wisconsin would not exist today.

The Lincoln statue has woven its way into campus legend ever since its placement on Bascom Hill over 100 years ago. While most of the once-bronze statue has since faded to a washed-out green, Lincoln’s foot remains polished from generations of Badger students who believe in the popular campus legend that rubbing Lincoln’s foot will bring good luck.

I myself have rubbed Lincoln’s foot many times before challenging finals and stressful marching band performances.

Many students at UW-Madison also look to Lincoln as a beacon of hope for the future. Campus legend also tells us that graduating seniors who climb into Lincoln’s lap and whisper their plans for life after graduation into his ear will see them come true.

Underclassmen who attempt to sit on Lincoln’s lap, however, will supposedly cause him to rise from his chair and kick them down the hill. A friend of mine tried this and supposedly escaped unscathed, but I remain wary of Lincoln’s wrath nonetheless.

This legend has since led to many photos of seniors in full graduation regalia sitting on Lincoln’s lap as a final rite of passage at UW. Finally being invited to see Bascom from Lincoln’s view is a reminder of all the years you spent gazing up at him as an underclassmen while also realizing the future laid out before you with your now completed UW degree.

As much as Lincoln has become a part of the student experience at UW, some students have taken issue with the statue over the years as they believe it represents a racist precedent that is unbecoming of the University of Wisconsin.

The statue was donated by two men with very racist pasts. One of whom was believed to have instigated the Tulsa Massacre, while the other was a known member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Lincoln also signed acts as president that displaced Native Americans and forced them onto reservations, a move that some believe does not warrant the statue to remain on Bascom Hill.

While these issues are not to be overlooked, I believe the legacy of Lincoln is still worth remembering on the University of Wisconsin campus.

Many students draw parallels between the racist ties of both Abraham Lincoln and the statue itself, and the rocky history of racism at UW. I believe, however, that this is the reason the statue should stand, not the reason it should be torn down.

As a student, the statue stands as a symbol of the university I love, and is one of my favorite pieces of campus tradition. I also recognize that the statue stands for more than just its racist roots, which is why I can not envision a campus without Lincoln. A campus without this statue would be a campus ashamed of its past, and afraid of its future.

Both Lincoln and the University of Wisconsin were troubled by histories of racial turmoil. Lincoln, while not perfect, managed to ultimately continue with his mission of serving the United States by leading us to become a more free nation. UW, while also not perfect, has a mission to serve its students through the pursuit of higher knowledge.

The figure of Abraham Lincoln should be one we constantly hold ourselves to as a part of the University of Wisconsin. Should we succumb to our past and dismantle ourselves like a statue of a bygone era, or is our legacy of bettering peoples’ lives worth preserving while moving forward to atone for these past transgressions?

The purpose of the Lincoln statue is thus twofold. Firstly, the physical representation of Lincoln in the statue pays homage to the Morrill Act, which created our university, while also playing into a little campus lore by serving as an ever-present symbol of the future and the power of a little wishful thinking. Secondly, the symbol represented by Abraham Lincoln on campus shows students that no matter the problems in our past each one of us is capable of bettering ourselves.

Was Lincoln a perfect president? No, but he did what he could to overcome his shortcomings and ended up changing the United States for the better with the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Lincoln statue serves as a reminder to both the school and its students that no matter how terrible your past, you are still capable of greatness through the pursuit of higher education. That is Lincoln’s enduring legacy, and that is why the Lincoln statue deserves to remain on Bascom Hill.

Besides, there’s no way I would have passed my Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences midterm without a little bit of luck from rubbing Lincoln’s foot.

IMAGE: Eric E. Johnson / Shutterstock

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About the Author
Jackson Walker -- University of Wisconsin Madison