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Abraham Lincoln's Honorary Degree

Orville Browning - Letter to Abraham Lincoln

In the midst of the 1860 presidential campaign -- two years after the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Knox's Old Main -- the Knox College Board of Trustees granted Abraham Lincoln an honorary doctorate.

Elated at the Board's action, Orville Browning (above left), a Knox Trustee and long-time Lincoln friend, dispatched this letter (above, right, excerpted below):


Briggs House - Chicago
July 4, 1860

Dear Lincoln

I left home yesterday morning -- stopped over at Galesburg to attend the annual meeting of the Board of Trustees of Knox College, of which I am a member. ...

Commencement occurs tomorrow, but I could not remain to witness and participate in the ceremonies.

As is usual on such occasions, the Faculty asked permission of the Board to confer ... honorary degrees on a few very distinguished and worthy gentlemen ... Included was a request to be permitted to confer the degree of LL.D. on the Hon. Abraham Lincoln. The idea originated with the Faculty ... and having been made the Board did not think it would look well to refuse this honor to the President of the United States, and so the thing was ordered accordingly.

You will, therefore, after tomorrow, consider yourself a 'scholar,' as well as a 'gentleman,' and deport yourself accordingly.

And however sceptical you may be upon the subject, you will, in due time, receive conclusive documentary evidence that the fact is so, and that you are in reality a Doctor of Laws.

This may not be to you a very gratifying tribute, coming, as it does, from a young institution just struggling for reputation... But I may say, for your comfort, that it is ... destined to become one of the most useful colleges in the land, and that in after time it will be no discredit to you that you received your degree at her hands...

Truly yours,
O.H. Browning

Photos and transcription from the Library of Congress, transcribed by the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College.