The Harlan-Lincoln legacy at Iowa Wesleyan University began in 1853 with the arrival of James Harlan to serve as president of the institution, then known as the Mount Pleasant Collegiate Institute.
Harlan’s acceptance of the position hinged on three goals: fundraising to build a second building; the establishment of a baccalaureate level of academic work; and the change of the name to Iowa Wesleyan University to reflect its collegiate nature and its relationship to the Methodist Episcopal Church.
With his goals accomplished, Harlan was elected to the United States Senate in 1855. As Senator, Harlan worked to exclude slavery from expanding into new territory and he was instrumental in the passage of the Pacific Railroad and Homestead Bills, which were important for the development of the Midwest.
While in Washington, D.C., Harlan’s friendship with President Lincoln grew. He was selected to escort Mrs. Abraham Lincoln to Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, and the President’s son, Robert, was the escort for Harlan’s daughter, Mary.
Lincoln appointed Harlan to serve as his Secretary of the Department of the Interior; however, Harlan served in the position after Lincoln’s assassination, under President Andrew Johnson. Disagreeing with Johnson’s claim that southern reconstruction was an executive prerogative, Harlan resigned in July of 1866.
He returned to the Senate in 1867 serving until 1872, when a bid for re-election failed. He and Mrs. Harlan returned to Mt. Pleasant and built the extant house onto the front of an earlier residence. The house is situated on the north edge of the Iowa Wesleyan University campus, a reminder of James Harlan’s presence at the University and community.
Harlan served Iowa Wesleyan as president, professor, and long-time trustee. He was active in the Methodist Episcopal Church as lay preacher and leader; he managed business interests; he was in demand as a public speaker, and he continued to be involved in the Iowa Republican Party. Harlan served as Chief Justice of the Second Court of Alabama Claims from 1882-1888.
Mary Harlan Lincoln
Mary Harlan and Robert Todd Lincoln were married in 1868 in Washington, D.C. After her parents returned to Mt. Pleasant, Mary brought her children, Mary, Abraham II, and Jessie, to spend summers with the Harlan grandparents.
She said Mt. Pleasant was “restful and good for the children growing up.” At the time, Robert was an attorney in Chicago and took the train to Mt. Pleasant to spend time with his family.
Senator Harlan deeded the property to the Robert Todd Lincolns in 1895, and Mary made improvements, including a wide wraparound front porch. She hosted two catered parties in the fall of 1895, welcoming people from the university and community to her home.
By 1907, with her parents no longer living and the family having built their home, Hildene, in Manchester, Vt., Mary Harlan Lincoln gave the house to Iowa Wesleyan University as a tribute to the memory of her father.