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Remembering a presidential friendship

Portrait of Jesse Fell

Jesse Fell, founder of Illinois State (Normal) University.

On this day, 150 years ago, one of Jesse Fell’s closest friends was shot while watching a play in Washington, D.C. This man, known as a strong leader who guided his divided country to peace, died the next day. To Fell, his friend was a confidant, someone he could talk to about their shared ideas on education, race, and politics. The friendship between Jesse Fell and Abraham Lincoln created not only a new university but a presidency.

Fell and Lincoln met in the 1830s in Vandalia, which then served as the state capital. They arrived to work in that term’s congressional session and were paired as roommates in temporary housing. They became fast friends, learning that they both had similar interests in the law and education. After that session, the two men stayed in touch, writing letters or visiting each other when Lincoln would pass through town on his travels as a lawyer for the Illinois 8th Judicial Circuit.

When Fell gained enough support in 1857 to start the new state teaching university (Illinois State Normal University), he asked Lincoln to handle the legal paperwork for the purchase of the land. Lincoln obliged and wrote a bond of sale guaranteeing the financial obligations of the county in the University’s construction costs. Lincoln’s involvement with the founding of the University was at an end, and he returned to his work on the 8th Circuit.

Just over a year later, Fell persuaded his friend to participate in a series of debates with Stephen A Douglas. The popularity of the debates propelled Lincoln’s political career and eventually led him to an 1860 Republican nomination and election as the 16th president of the United States.

Fell and Lincoln remained friends through Lincoln’s presidency. Fell and the University’s first president, Charles Hovey, visited Lincoln during the first battle of Bull Run. It was during that visit that Hovey was given his commission as colonel and authorized by Lincoln to form the 33rd Illinois Infantry, a regiment largely made up of Illinois State alumni and faculty, and local citizens.  Lincoln also appointed Fell as paymaster for the Union army. Fell and Hovey would serve for about a year each, Fell returning to Bloomington while Hovey recovered from wounds he received in battle.

Through their shared beliefs, Fell and Lincoln championed the idea of education for all.  As we reflect this week on the life of Abraham Lincoln, we should also remember him for his contributions to Illinois State. While the nation lost a president, Jesse Fell lost a dear friend.

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