On this Presidents Day, Centre recognizes its connections to the highest office in the land. While the College has not—yet—produced a President of the United States, among its alumni are two vice presidents, not to mention a graduate who offered significant guidance to one of the country’s most celebrated leaders.
John Todd Stuart graduated from Centre at the age of 19 in 1826 and went on to become a lawyer, not to mention a congressman, state senator and U.S. representative. Upon joining the military after the outbreak of the Black Hawk War in 1832, Stuart became friends with a young man in his battalion named Abraham Lincoln.
When the two returned to civilian life, Stuart encouraged Lincoln to consider giving up his chosen profession as a blacksmith in favor of a career in the law, famously lending the future president a set of law books to read as he mulled over his future. The advice stuck, apparently, and Stuart became Lincoln’s first law partner in 1837.
The two practiced at the same firm in Illinois until 1841. Lincoln married Stuart’s cousin, Mary Todd, the following year, lending him even more connections to Centre: Mary’s brother George Rogers Clark Todd graduated from Centre in 1843, as did her half-brother Samuel Todd in 1848. Dr. Lyman Beecher Todd, an 1851 Centre graduate also related to Mary, was notably present at Lincoln’s bedside during his final hours.
The Centre Lincoln connections live on in the 21st century through Emily Noelker ‘17—the great-grand-niece of John Todd Stuart, six generations removed.
The College honored Stuart in 2007 by renaming a residence hall for him. In 2012, Centre unveiled a sixteen-foot statue of Lincoln in front of Crounse Hall created by renowned public artist Ed Hamilton. The statue depicts the president as a young man, reading one of the law books loaned to him by Stuart. The statue brings Stuart and Lincoln’s relationship full-circle, as Stuart served as president of the Lincoln Monument Association following the president’s death.
Beyond the Stuart-Lincoln connections, two vice presidents are also among the College’s alumni. John C. Breckinridge graduated from Centre in 1838 and became the youngest elected vice president in the nation’s history (a title that still stands) when inaugurated at age 36 in 1857. In an ironic twist of Centre connections, Breckinridge ran against Lincoln for the presidency in 1860, but history knows that Lincoln won.
Adlai E. Stevenson, Class of 1859, became vice president under Grover Cleveland in 1892. He also ran as vice president under William Jennings Bryan in 1900 but was defeated by the ticket of Theodore Roosevelt and William McKinley. His grandson and great-grandson, both named for him, also ran for public office.
Two residential buildings on Centre’s campus feature the names of Stevenson and Breckinridge, though the latter building was in fact named for Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge, a founder of the Danville Theological Seminary and uncle to John.
by Elizabeth Trollinger
February 20, 2017