Perspectives on Knox History

March 27, 2010


Primary Sources in Education

Filed under: Uncategorized — Grant @ 6:49 pm

As a historian, it is often frustrating to me what little consideration we as a society give to the purpose behind our study of history. What is it that we are hoping to accomplish when we examine the past? Are our forays into past times and places strictly for personal fulfillment, or is there, as we so often say, a “moral” to the story?

When I engage in personal conversations about history with non-academics, I am met with a stock of different responses. There is the prototypical, old high-school student who found history, as a class, a frivolous bore. For them, history consisted of static environments contained within the pages of a stuffy textbook. Personally, I must say I can’t blame them for their aversion! As I’ve continued down the road towards making the study of history my vocation I have learned that this, although an all too common experience, is not what the study of history truly entails. On the other end of the spectrum, however, I have encountered those who do enjoy history, but do so without turning a critical eye to its interpretation. For these individuals, history’s stories and characters are the objects of fascination and intrigue in place of any deeper personal meaning.  In effect, though, both responses leave something to be desired.

While I would love for everyone to take a genuine interest in history as a discipline, I realize that this is not realistic, nor practical. In the short time that we have to teach history to our youth, though, we need to enact some changes in the manner in which we teach it.

As a subject in elementary and secondary school, history is taught as a series of facts to be memorized and regurgitated for a grade. It is often solely contained in a textbook that, like a train on rails, travels chronologically, page by page, chapter by chapter, in linear progression, binding any form of intellectual inquiry. This kind of survey study, while necessary in building a base of knowledge and facilitating historical inquiry, has replaced it entirely in many curricula.

In the sciences, inquiry is emphasized as the principal component of the scientific method, but in the humanities, where the search for truth is just as relevant and essential, this is not the case. Research is to history what an experiment is to chemistry, or physics, or biology; it’s this “hands-on” experience that motivates students to learn. Instead of a laboratory, students of history put their hard hats and goggles on when they engage primary sources, those documents which are, put simply, closest to the person, place, or period being studied. Rather than relying on the interpretation of a textbook, historical research allows the student to pose his or her own questions, pursue them, and form their own answers. As an exercise, historical research allows students to reconcile the differences between separate places and times, illustrating connections between the past and the present that foster an appreciation of the study of history for its own sake, and its relevance to and significance in the present.

Within certain parameters and with proper guidance, the use of primary sources in the classroom would further develop students’ facility for critical thinking, beneficial not only in the field of history, but in other areas as well. It is this capacity for critical thinking, in connecting the past to the present, that is the “moral” of the study of history.

March 19, 2010


Contextual notes on the Lincoln-Douglas debates

Filed under: Uncategorized — Grant @ 5:38 pm

Hermann Muelder’s observation that “…abolitionism was derided [even] by men of good will who disliked slavery,” is an accurate and succinct summation of the status quo in antebellum America; it is especially relevant to our reading of Knox College’s history, considering that the predominant, overarching theme of the period from Knox’s foundation until the Civil War was the abolitionism. We have already witnessed how abolitionism was present from the earliest origins of the college, and how it subsequently factored into early sectarianism, but apart from cursory references, we have yet to examine how anti-slavery agitation manifested itself in local politics. Abolitionism was a distinguishing feature of both the college and town’s politics. From the foundation of the state’s very first Anti-Slavery Society, to one of Galesburg’s own, Matthew Chambers’s, campaign for state senate in 1842, President Blanchard’s infamous debate with Senator Stephen Douglas, and the climactic Lincoln-Douglas debates, the crusade against slavery was a principal political concern of Galesburg’s early citizenry.

The fourth of the seven senatorial debates, the Lincoln-Douglas debate held at Knox College in late October of 1858 was the defining political event in Knox County during the Civil War antebellum period. Abraham Lincoln, then a relatively unknown candidate from the nascent Republican Party, debated Democratic stalwart and incumbent, Stephen Douglas, the infamous author of the pivotal 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which superseded the provisions of Compromise of 1850 with the expansion of the implementation of popular sovereignty, or a state’s right to individually permit or deny slavery within its territorial limits. While the events and rhetoric of that day are now the source of much popular folklore, the debate was the product of decades of political activism at Knox College and in Galesburg. Unfortunately, this context is not widely discussed in relation to the debates.

The first settlers to arrive in Galesburg in 1836-7 were largely an ideologically homogeneous group. Although not all of the subscribers to George Washington Gale’s Circular and Plan were strict proponents of his evangelical educational mission (some had utilized the venture as a means to travel west) the majority of emigrants were Presbyterian or Congregationalist congregants — and both sects admonished slavery as a practice. From its earliest days, the residents of the Galesburg colony listened to religious sermons preaching the abolition of slavery; first in Gale’s cabin in Log City, then in the Old First Church, and the subsequent First Presbyterian and Congregationalist Churches. Before the introduction of the railroads in 1854, which nearly quadrupled the town’s population in one year, Galesburg was a relatively insulated community, notorious amongst neighboring townships for its progressive social mores.

In 1837, the fledgling community’s first year, Galesburg’s founders saw that an Anti-Slavery Society, auxiliary to the American Anti-Slavery society, was established. The following year, in 1838, Galesburg representatives played a preeminent role at the state Anti-Slavery convention in Farmington. This convention, coupled with a series of political debates on the slavery issue in Monmouth that same year, lent the Galesburg band of abolitionists a great degree of notoriety, prompting their ideological opponents to proclaim their leader, George Washington Gale “the great champion of abolitionism” in Illinois. True to his stature, Gale would later become the only Illinoisan ever to appear in deliberations of the national convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society when he attended in 1839.

By the opening of the decade in 1840, abolitionism in Illinois had found new steam in an abolitionist political party: the Liberty Party. Evidence of the politicization of abolitionism in early Galesburg, two Knox College trustees were chosen as presidential electors for the Liberty Party ticket. Spread over the next elections, several Knox College Board members ran for political offices under the Liberty banner; one for United States Congress, and two for the Illinois state senate. Although the Liberty Party, a third party, initially received few votes, their numbers increased as the party achieved greater organization. From its beginning, the Liberty Party garnered significant support from the Galesburg precincts, leading George Washington Gale to triumphantly remark to Liberty Party Presidential candidate James Birney that “[his] precinct casts more votes for the Liberty Party than both of the other parties united.” Gale and other prominent members of the Galesburg Colony were instrumental in caucusing for the Liberty Party among local, state, and even national, evangelicals.

By the decade’s close, the Liberty Party’s success had hit a metaphorical ceiling. For sure, the Party had never really had major success, aside from the greater acceptance of the principles it promoted. Birney, the party’s candidate for President in the 1840 and 1844 presidential elections, had never netted more than a fraction (less than 5%) of the national popular vote. The party’s progress was limited by its reputation as a third party, and further electoral success was compromised by political alliances that necessitated political bargaining. This, coupled with internal dissension over the 1848 Wilmot Proviso, banning slavery in new territories acquired from the war with Mexico, led to the party’s eventual absorption into the national Free Soil Party, which espoused a similar anti-slavery platform.

The Free Soil Party remained the vanguard of the political abolition movement until the landmark 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, authored by the Democratic Senator from Illinois, Stephen Douglas. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska essentially invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, as well as the previous compromise of 1850, which was credited with temporarily avoiding the threat of secession at that time. In the midst of the Mexican-American War, and Texas’s admission to the union, a debate erupted over the future of new additions to the Union. In 1820, this issue had been rather simply resolved by resorting to an imaginary demarcation between north and south established at 35.5′ latitude, colloquially referred to as the Mason-Dixon line. All newly admitted states to the Union that south of the demarcation would provisionally be slave states; all states to the North, free.

In 1850, this simplified approach was scrapped, with concessions to both Northern and Southern interests. Slavery would be determined by referendum — “popular sovereignty” as it was termed — in the new southwestern states, while northern interests in the Pacific, namely California, would be maintained. Other provisions included an expansion of the Fugitive Slave laws, a concession to the Southern states. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act expanded the practice of popular sovereignty to the new state admissions of Kansas and Nebraska. The bill’s principal advocate, Senator Stephen Douglas, stood behind his conception of self-determination as his motivation for proposing the bill, while opponents derided the Bill in moral and economic terms; Blanchard and Lincoln both had opportunities to publicly air their grievances in person with the bill’s architect, Stephen Douglas. Though no text of the speeches remain, Blanchard is purported to have been an able opponent of the senator, while Lincoln, likewise, through his rhetoric, established a foundation for a political trajectory that would vault him to the presidency in six short years.

Similar to the political splintering that occurred with the introduction 1848 Wilmot Proviso, the Kansas-Nebraska Act served as the catalyst for the formation of a new political party: the Republicans. Founded by anti-slavery expansion activists, the Republican Party became the second major party, opposite the Democrats. Composed primarily of old-time Whigs and other anti-slavery political, the invention of the Republican Party would polarize the American political spectrum between advocates of slavery, and its opponents. The ascent of a national anti-slavery party did not necessarily mean the popularization of abolitionist sentiment, however. As Dr. Muelder remarked, however, there was a significant distinction between abolition, or the agitation for the removal of slavery, and “anti-slavery” in terms of slavery’s expansion. This distinction would become apparent with the presidential candidacy of John Fremont in 1864. A hard-line abolitionist nominated by a dissenting Republican faction by a group known as the ‘Radical Republicans,’ who had become disillusioned with Abraham Lincoln’s purportedly weak position on slavery, Fremont later became popular amongst the strict abolitionists in Galesburg. His reputation later gained him the recognition of having a street named in his honor.

On the heels of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, the U.S. senate elections of 1858 provided the next significant platform for the discussion of slavery politics. In the four years since the Republican Party’s inception, Galesburg had established itself as Republican stronghold.

Galesburg’s citizens had transitioned from the Free Soil Party to the Republicans in support of their similar Anti-Slavery agenda. The senatorial debate series was arbitrarily divided between Republican and Democratic influenced areas. When Lincoln arrived on that fall day in October 1858, he was greeted by an overwhelmingly sympathetic crowd of Galesburg residents among a considerably smaller Douglas contingent. The events and rhetoric of that day, most notably Lincoln’s famous accusation that “He [Douglas] is blowing out the moral lights around us…” were a direct response to the local and national political situation that had embroiled Illinois and the nation in controversy.

–Grant Forssberg, ‘09
Post-Baccalaureate Fellow

March 16, 2010


Nomenclature

Filed under: Uncategorized — Grant @ 11:40 am

I recently brought my car down to Galesburg this past year from my hometown of Riverside, a suburb just outside of Chicago. For the first time in my now five-year Knox career, I have the capability to experience Galesburg through the eyes of a motorist. Among other things (the most important of which are visiting the grocery store and the mall) this newly acquired mobility has facilitated a new appreciation of the town that I now call home. Driving knowledge of a locality is an especially significant attribute, and I don’t believe you can truly call somewhere home until you know all the shortcuts around the tracks and the quickest way to the movie theater and Target from the south side of town, for instance (hint: Linden has a posted 40 miles per hour speed limit, utilize it!) Of necessity, I now have a greater knowledge of the layout of Galesburg’s thoroughfares.

Maybe I’m the only one — obsessed with historical places and times, as I am — but I began to ponder the origin of some of our town’s street names. You don’t have to live here to understand the importance of Carl Sandburg to Galesburg’s legacy, or to know the overarching influence the railroads, of many different acronyms, have had on the destiny of this small Midwestern city. But have you ever wondered why you’re driving/or walking down Cherry Street to your favorite bar or restaurant? Well, that one is going to remain a mystery for now (if any of my readers know, please put me to shame and divulge the answer!) but I can help you out on some of the other streets. Now open up your Google maps and join me as we take a virtual tour down some of Galesburg’s streets.

As many of you may know, or suspect, Galesburg was much smaller than it is currently when it was incorporated. The original town had boundaries on South, North, Academy, and Seminary Streets, to the south, north, west, and east, respectively. If you have studied early Galesburg history you will notice that the streets on this plat of land, which were the earliest in town, are named for members of the original group of settlers. If you’ve kept up with the articles in this series, you might recognize some of the names already.

Starting from the southern edge of the original colony and heading northward, listed are some of the namesakes of Galesburg’s streets and roads:

South Street
Not much to comment on here. This street’s name matches its geographical location.

Tompkins Street
Named after Samuel Tompkins, a cobbler from Hamilton, NY who was among the original subscribers to George Washington Gale’s “Circular and Plan,” and accompanied the purchasing committee west to decide on the site for the proposed village.

Simmons Street
A friend of Tompkins, Thomas Simmons was a member of the original Board of Trustees of the Knox Manual Labor College and was re-elected for another term following the school’s chartering in 1838.

Academy Street
This street is named for the first Knox Academy, which was later moved to the corner of Cherry and Main.

Seminary Street
Named for the first Knox Seminary, which was destroyed by fire in 1844. A plaque sits at the corner of Mulberry and Seminary Sts. commemorating it.

Kellogg Street
Named after Knox College’s first president Hiram H. Kellogg. Please refer to the second article on the religious schism for more information on President Kellogg.

Ferris Street
Named for Sylvanus Ferris, cheese-maker turned financier and businessman; Ferris was a critical component of the original Board of Trust. Ferris secured a loan in his name to purchase the original plat of land and was the first on site in 1836 scouting out potential settlements. He would serve on the board of trust for several decades, and was a stalwart associate of George Washington Gale. The two families were linked through intermarriage for several generations.

West Street
Likely named for Nehemiah West, another original subscriber.

Outside the original town limits:

Chambers Street
Named for Matthew Chambers, a settler from Vermont who had been prospecting in Illinois when he came upon Gale’s settlement. He would later operate a store on public square in the middle of town and serve as a Trustee of the College.

Losey Street
Another one of original surveyors of the Galesburg colony, Nehemiah Losey also served as the village’s first postmaster and a professor of mathematics at Knox. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees.

Farnham Street
Named for Eli Farnham, a farmer and past trustee of the college.

Henderson Street
Leads to the town of Henderson to the north, and also signifies Henderson Grove, where the early settlers lived before taking up full time residence in Galesburg.

Whitesboro Street
Named after the County in New York where many of the settlers originated.

Bateman Street
Named after Newton Bateman, the first president of the College who was not a clergyman by profession.

These are just a sampling of some the origins of Galesburg’s street names. Can any of you provide more information about the people behind Galesburg’s street names? If so, feel free to provide the information in the comments below. We’re all interested to hear!

March 9, 2010


Sylvanus Ferris

Filed under: Uncategorized — Grant @ 3:13 pm

blog_ferris.jpgSylvanus Ferris was a cheese artisan in Herkimer County, New York before he answered George Washington Gale’s “Circular and Plan,” calling for subscribers to a religious manual labor college in the West. Along with Nehemiah West and George Washington Gale, Ferris became a proprietor of Galesburg and Knox College, serving as a member of the exploratory committee that purchased the land for the town as well as a college trustee. It was Sylvanus Ferris who provided the security on the loan covering the difference between the cost of the land and the money that the Gale’s group raised. It was Ferris, too, who went ahead of the settlers to prepare the site for inhabitation.

As might be supposed by Ferris’ involvement, Gale and Ferris were close friends. For decades after an educational venture brought them to the Illinois prairie together, Ferris never left Gale’s side. When Gale was beleaguered by the town’s Congregationalists in the wake of sectarian strife, pitting the town’s Congregationalists and Presbyterians against each other over the issue of slavery, Ferris never wavered in supporting him. Ferris’s support of Gale on the college’s board of trustees was crucial to his victory over the college’s second President and personal rival, Jonathan Blanchard, when the sectarian conflict came to a head in 1857.

Sylvanus Ferris played an integral role in the early Galesburg community, but the Ferris family’s greatest legacy, interestingly enough, comes from another member of the family. George Washington Gale Ferris (the relationship between the Gale and Ferris families was as close as George Washington and Sylvanus’s; they intermarried on several occasions), inventor of the Ferris wheel, is probably the most recognizable member of the family — despite his grandfather’s numerous accomplishments. Silvanus wasn’t completely slighted though; the street one block to the north of Main carries his name for all passersby to see.


George Washington Gale

Filed under: Uncategorized — Grant @ 2:55 pm

blog_Gale.jpgThe Reverend George Washington Gale was born in Stanford, New York in 1789, the youngest of nine children — seven girls and two boys. He had a difficult childhood; both of his parents passed away by the time he was nine years old, forcing one of his elder sisters to raise him. In his autobiography, he speaks fondly of his only brother, Josiah, to whom he was very much attached. Josiah was one of the few male influences that George had, and his passing when George was only 20 years old had a deep emotional impact on him.

Gale initially entered college at Union, but struggled due to poor health (a stomach disorder called dyspepsia) and finances. He instead left to travel on horseback between upstate New York towns and teach at local schools. It was these travels that influenced much of Gale’s future philosophy — it was on one of these trips that he embraced religion for the first time. Gale did eventually graduate from Union College in 1814, and then from the Presbyterian affiliated Princeton Theological Seminary in 1819.

In 1816, while taking a break from his studies at Princeton, Gale was ordained into the Presbyterian ministry. After completing a variety of religious assignments, George settled down to his own pastorate in Adams County, New York in 1820. In this area, known as the “Burned-Over District” due to its religious revivalism, George Washington Gale mentored the infamous Charles Grandison Finney, the influential leader of the religious “Great Awakening” of the 1820s. By the mid 1820s, though, Gale had discovered an innovative new method by which to spread the gospel.

After returning from a health related trip to Virginia, Gale became interested on the concept of a religious manual labor college and he began to develop the mold for one that would eventually become Knox College. His first experiment with manual labor education, the Oneida Institute, was the tangible inspiration for a similar institution further west. By completing a pre-determined amount of manual labor for the college each day, students could afford to pay their way through school; it eliminated the need for the “evil” of charity, and produced hearty young men unaffected by the debilitating physical and mental atrophy facilitated by dedication to one’s studies alone.

George Washington Gale both formulated the idea for Knox College and Galesburg and was instrumental in making it a reality. His “Circular and Plan” provided subscriptions from prospective settlers that allowed him and his appointed executive committee to purchase the land that would become Galesburg and the home of the college. George Washington Gale was the founder of Galesburg and Knox college, as well as a trustee and professor at the latter; he was influential in administration of the college up into his death in 1861.