By Elizabeth Stortroen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
On Feb. 12, the nation will begin a yearlong celebration of the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, an event the state started preparing for last November, when Gov. Bill Ritter established the Colorado Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
At a press conference Monday, Feb. 2, the governor and commission unveiled celebrations throughout the state to commemorate the 16th president.
“The goal of this commission is to heighten awareness of how the West shaped Lincoln and how Lincoln shaped the destiny of Colorado and the West,” Ritter said. “I’m looking forward to these events that encourage dialogue about the ‘unfinished work’ of democracy and equal opportunity in our own place and time.”
The commission has drawn criticism from those who don’t see any need for a 20-member commission to study a man who never set foot in Colorado and who was assassinated a decade before Colorado gained statehood.
Nevertheless, the panel, which includes Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, Colorado State Historian William Convery and Denver historian Sydney Nathans, among others, found ample evidence of Lincoln’s significance to Colorado.
“As a candidate for office in the 1850s, Lincoln drew the line against the expansion of slavery to the West,” said Nathans, co-chair of Colorado’s commission. “And as president during the Civil War, he held that line. Thanks to his resolve, Colorado, the West and — finally — the nation became forever free of bondage.”
Lincoln is credited with signing two pieces of legislation in 1862 that were critical in opening the West: the Homestead Act, which gave free land to thousands of Colorado settlers, and the Pacific Railway Act, which allowed the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, creating safe, reliable transportation to the frontier.
“Abraham Lincoln was our first national martyr, and he died for his ideals of the union, freedom and equality,” said Colorado State Historian Convery, who noted that more words have been written about Lincoln than about any other figure in American history.
Convery said Lincoln, who was born and grew up in the then-frontier state of Illinois, identified with the West. In 1861, Lincoln helped organize Colorado’s territorial government and appointed William Gilpin, who had served as a military escort for the president-elect, as its first territorial governor.
Colorado played an important role in the Civil War, Convery said.
An organized militia based at Colorado’s Fort Garland defended Union territory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, in New Mexico Territory, in March 1862, successfully repelling an attack by Confederate troops from Texas.
“There is no way to determine what would have happened had the Texans won that battle, which some call the Gettysburg of the West,” Convery said. “But we can speculate that — had the Texans won — transportation out West could have been shut off, and California could have been persuaded to the Confederate side, which would have changed the entire landscape of the war.”
Colorado’s observance of Lincoln’s bicentennial kicks off Thursday, Feb. 12, with the introduction in the Legislature of a resolution honoring Lincoln and a reading of the Gettysburg Address.
Also on Thursday, Metro State history professor Laura McCall will moderate a daylong symposium on Lincoln at the Tivoli center on Auraria campus.
For more information, go to the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission’s Web site, www.COLincoln200.org.
“This is a chance to reconnect ourselves to the ideals that (Lincoln) introduced in the Gettysburg Address,” Convery said.
“We need to remember that and remember that it has allowed us to move forward and create the best free society that we can have.”