As part of the Bicentennial Celebration of Abraham Lincoln, the Dirksen Congressional Center is pleased to present a version of the Lincoln legacy through the eyes of two members of Congress, EVERETT MCKINLEY DIRKSEN AND ROBERT H. MICHEL, who later represented the central Illinois congressional district that once sent Lincoln to the House of Representatives. 


Dirksen came by his affection for the 16th president honestly.  As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1933 into 1949, Dirksen represented a large part of what had been the district Lincoln represented during his only term in Congress, 1847-49.  Dirksen, also a Republican, shared the affinity for Lincoln embraced by members of his party in Illinois and across the nation—an affinity on display yet today in the annual Lincoln Day ceremonies conducted every February by, largely, Republican organizations.

Dirksen, later a U.S. Senator and Minority Leader of the Senate, possessed a well-developed sense of history, having read widely in the classics.  He counted biographies of Lincoln among his favorites.  Dirksen’s own biographer, Neil MacNeil, noted the Lincoln influence in Dirksen’s hometown of Pekin.  “The people were Midwest Republicans,” he wrote, “but there was a special temper to the town’s Republicanism, for this was Lincoln country.”  MacNeil continued:

Pekin was the seat of Tazewell County, and as such the site of the county courthouse.  It was a town known to Abraham Lincoln for just about all the years of his adult life.  He had stopped overnight at Pekin as early as 1832 on his way home from the Black Hawk War.  Year after year, spring and fall, Lincoln had come back to Pekin as a lawyer for the sessions of the Tazewell circuit court, staying a week or two on each visit.  As a delegate in the Illinois state legislature Lincoln had sponsored the bill that built the state road from Peoria to Pekin.  When Lincoln became a member of Congress in 1847, this town was part of his Congressional district.  Indeed, it was at a party convention in Pekin that Lincoln struck the bargain with his political rivals, the so-called “Pekin Agreement,” that gave him the nomination to Congress. . . .  This was a place where Lincoln had had many friends, and when Dirksen was a boy there were men and women in this town who had known Lincoln in his life, and known him well.  That fact pervaded life in Pekin.  It was as much a part of the tradition of Pekin as the reading of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, and Dirksen grew up with it. 1

Dirksen, of course, celebrated Lincoln in his use of the language, often citing Lincoln as the source of his phrasing.  When Dirksen announced his challenge to an incumbent Republican for his seat in the House in 1930, many tried to dissuade him.  As Dirksen recalled in his memoir, “The best I could say without giving offense was what Abraham Lincoln said to his friends who sought to dissuade him from seeking the presidency.  It was a rough road for him, and one of the phrases he used was, ‘The taste is a little in my mouth.’”2  In some measure, Dirksen owed his ambition for public office to Lincoln.

Everett Dirksen’s fondness for Abraham Lincoln is apparent in this selection of historical materials from his papers housed at The Center.  Ever the teacher, Dirksen, as you will see, took great pains to draw lessons from Lincoln’s career and to apply them to the challenges of the mid-20th century.

ROBERT H. MICHEL (1923- ) 

When asked during a political campaign to name his personal hero, Bob Michel listed Abraham Lincoln.  Michel’s congressional collection contains more than 80 speeches with references to his hero.

Bob Michel served longer than any other as the House Minority Leader.  First elected to the post on December 8, 1980, Michel led the outnumbered Republicans until his retirement in 1994.  Born in Peoria on March 2, 1923, he first came to Washington as the Administrative Assistant to his predecessor, Harold Velde, in 1949.  Republican Velde had taken Dirksen’s House seat following the 1948 elections.  Bob Michel was elected to the 85th Congress in 1956 upon Velde’s retirement.  After 38 years, Michel announced in October 1993 that he would not seek a 20th term in the House.  In addition to his leadership post, Michel spent much of his career on the Appropriations Committee, where he was known as a pragmatic legislator willing to compromise to reach agreement.

Whereas Everett Dirksen often employed the Lincoln legacy in a literary sense, Bob Michel appreciated the practical side of the 16th president and sought to apply the lessons of Lincoln to the political realities faced by contemporary Republicans.  In Lincoln Day remarks delivered appropriately enough in Springfield, Illinois, in 1985, Michel chose not to talk about the Lincoln of legend—“No, I’m here to talk about the human Lincoln.”  “He was actually a down-to-earth fellow,” Michel continued.  “He knew how to inspire with words.  But he also knew how to count votes.  He was eloquent—but he knew when and how to listen.  He knew what it was to soar to political heights—but he also knew what it was to fight for his political life.”  Michel labeled him an “idealistic realist” who combined idealism with practicality, great vision with hard-headed realism.  Calling Lincoln “our political consultant,” Michel closed his remarks to his fellow Republicans by quoting his hero’s advice in March 1859:

If we do not allow ourselves to be allured from the strict path of our duty by such a device as shifting our ground, then the future of the Republican cause is safe, and victory is assured.  Stand by your principles, stand by your guns, and victory, complete and permanent, is sure at last.

1 Neil MacNeil, Dirksen:  Portrait of a Public Man (New York:  world Publishing Co., 1970): 23-24.

2 Everett M. Dirksen, The Education of a Senator (Urbana and Champaign:  University of Illinois Press, 1998):  78, 230.


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