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Visits to Knox College by U.S. Presidents


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Galesburg, IL 61401



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Old Main seen through the leaves of a tree.

Since its founding, Knox College has hosted visits by nine Americans who have held the office of President of the United States. They are shown here in the order in which they held office.

Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln (1861-1864)

"He is blowing out the moral lights around us when he contends that whoever wants slaves has the right to hold them."

The debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on October 7, 1858 drew upwards of 10,000 to Old Main -- believed to be the largest audience at any of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Because the founders of Knox and Galesburg were profoundly anti-slavery, the debate held at Old Main presented a fitting time and place for Lincoln to make an issue of the morality of Douglas's position on slavery. Two years later, in the midst of the 1860 presidential campaign -- Knox granted Abraham Lincoln an honorary doctorate. It was the first honorary doctorate awarded by Knox, and the first academic degree of any kind received by Lincoln.

Benjamin HarrisonBenjamin Harrison (1889-1893)

"...Education was early in the thought of the framers of our Constitution as one of the best, if not the only guarantee of their perpetuation... We are here, then, today engaged in a patriotic work as we lay this cornerstone of an institution that has had a great career of usefulness in the past and is now entering upon a field of enlarged usefulness..."

While in Galesburg on October 8, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison laid the cornerstone of Knox College's Alumni Hall, attended a large banquet, a reunion of the Army regiment that he had commanded during the Civil War, and a gathering of members of his college fraternity, where he said that a person's time at college "are the days that affect the whole future."

William McKinleyWilliam McKinley (1897-1901)

"Here are sacred memories which will be cherished by this community for all time and are permanently incorporated in the life of the nation."

Thousands turned out to hear President William McKinley speak outside Old Main, on October 7, 1899, the anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Knox. McKinley is reported to have been accompanied to Galesburg by his entire cabinet. The presidential delegation gathered at the Galesburg home of political figure Clark Carr, and some have characterized the event as the first cabinet meeting in U.S. history held outside the nation's capital.

Theodore RooseveltTheodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

"It is a good thing for this country that we have institutions of this kind to train citizens. Education means that of those who have it much is expected."

Theodore Roosevelt was a candidate for vice president on the Republican ticket with William McKinley, when he spoke outside Old Main on July 5, 1900. Knox students and alumni had been among Roosevelt's first boosters for national office. Four years earlier, when he had just been appointed assistant secretary of the Navy, Knox students held a mock political convention and nominated Roosevelt for president, while a group of Knox alumni, meeting in Chicago, passed a resolution backing the students' choice.

William Howard TaftWilliam Howard Taft (1909-1913)

"In this discussion [the Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Knox] Lincoln settled the attitude of the Republican Party [opposition to slavery]... Although he was not the foremost man in his party, he then became so, by demonstration of his fitness to lead. It was an epoch-making event and brought about the election of Lincoln and the war and all that followed."

Prior to his election as president in November 1908, William Howard Taft arrived in Galesburg on the afternoon of October 7, 1908, to speak at Knox's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debate. Arriving from Chicago, Taft was escorted from the train station to the Knox campus by a delegation of students. After speaking at Knox, Taft caught a train back to Chicago for a joint appearance with his opponent, William Jennings Bryan.

Ronald ReaganRonald Reagan (1981-1989)

"Inflation is a plague that has settled upon us... Government causes inflation, and government can make it go away."

Ronald Reagan spoke on the Knox campus on March 16, 1980 for the annual Lincoln Day Dinner, sponsored by the Knox County Republican Central Committee. The former governor of California, Reagan was among nine GOP candidates who campaigned for president in 1980. Other Republican contenders that year included George H.W. Bush and Senator Bob Dole -- who would both visit Knox on the same day eight years later, in their own presidential bids.

George H.W. BushGeorge H.W. Bush (1989-1993)

"Campaigning is the crucible of a candidate's temperament... it gives voters a chance to see our priorities, our values, what makes us tick."

George H.W. Bush was vice president when he spoke at Knox to an invitation-only audience at the local Republican party's annual Lincoln Day Dinner on March 13, 1988. As in 1858, when Lincoln and Douglas debated at Knox, Galesburg was, in the words of a local newspaper reporter, "the crossroad of candidates" again in 1988. As Bush was speaking in Memorial Gymnasium, U.S. Senator Bob Dole was holding a news conference in Old Main. Dole had come to Knox in an unsuccessful attempt to confront Bush in a face-to-face debate.

Bill ClintonBill Clinton (1993-2001)

"This college was born in the throes of the anti-slavery movement and was revolutionary from its beginning, in being open to people of color and to women."

While at Knox, addressing thousands and receiving an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters on June 2, 2007, President Bill Clinton was cited for his works in health, economic, and environmental programs, as well as his charitable relief programs.

Barack ObamaBarack Obama (2009-2017)

"The day before I was sworn in, a reporter asked me, ‘Senator Obama, what is your place in history?' It's not a bad question for you, the class of 2005 to ask yourselves: What will be your place in history? Today on this day of possibility, we stand in the shadow of a lanky, raw-boned man with little formal education who once took the stage at Old Main and told the nation that if anyone did not believe the American principles of freedom and equality, that those principles were timeless and all-inclusive, they should go rip that page out of the Declaration of Independence."

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the third U.S. President to hold an honorary degree from Knox, joining presidents Abraham Lincoln and William Clinton. He was awarded an honorary degree on June 5, 2005, in recognition of his public service and his efforts to unite the country and the world with the values that our nation was built upon.

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Printed on Sunday, April 21, 2024