The Establishment of Springfield
Is Lincoln a "special ward" of hometown elites?
February 8, 1980
The Abraham Lincoln Association is a private organization based in Springfield that is devoted to Lincoln study. Not surprisingly, its leadership over the years has been drawn from the town's business and professional elites, men (almost exclusively) who have the time and money needed to support it. This is a reality to which the young author of this piece was slow to acknowledge. I have since come to appreciate that, for all its faults, Springfield, the nation, and, dare I say it, Lincoln are better off for the ALA's existence.
When I was a young man growing up on the east side of Springfield, I knew little more about Abraham Lincoln than I would had I lived in Oxnard or Omaha. The 15-block trip I made to Lincoln’s home with my eighth grade classmates offered indisputable proof that Lincoln had once been a part of Springfield’s life. But he never became a part of mine.
Even when I was more or less grown and filling in odd days working as a guide in one of the Lincoln historic sites, I felt no kinship with my fellow townsman. I think now it was because l felt it was not my place to feel such a kinship. 1 mean, it seemed that every person I’d met who claimed such a kinship was rich, or at least lived as if they were. l am not given to agreeing with mayors very often, but what three-time Springfield mayor Nelson Howarth said in 1971 sure made sense. "Abraham Lincoln . . . has been taken from ordinary people and made a special ward of the wealthy and near-wealthy."
Thus I came to two conclusions about the study of Lincoln in Springfield. One is that you must have money to do it. (It doesn’t have to be your money; the taxpayers’ money will do nicely instead.) Two, whether you have money or not, you will have to spend a lot of time with people who do. Most of those people belong to the Abraham Lincoln Association. The ALA holds a banquet every year on Lincoln’s birthday. Our man Alan Anderson attended in 1977, where he heard the then-president of Sangamon State University, Robert Spencer, describe the attendees as "the establishment of Springfield in the best sense of the word," which proved that Spencer at least knew which side his foundation was buttered on.
The ALA is a national organization, but traditionally the bulk of its members come from Springfield’s professional, financial, and social elites. (Mayor Howarth likes to joke that the ALA is the only outfit he knows in which the membership is elected by the board of directors.) Of the four current officers, one is president of the city’s largest bank, one is a federal district court judge, and a third is a head surgeon at a major medical center. The current board of directors, for example, counts a Bartholf, a Becker, a Brown, a Chapin, a Funk, a Herndon, a Myers, an O’Brien, a Patton among its members—commonplace names in the wider world, but magic syllables in the capital city. That group also includes scholars. attorneys, newspaper publishers, gentleman historians, even bankers. In the case of some of the members, obviously, Lincoln may be the only honest man they’ve ever associated with in Springfield.
For sheer weight of influence, no organization in Springfield matches it. The ALA traces its roots to the Lincoln Centennial Association, which was formed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1909. That first banquet, held in the old state arsenal, barred Springfield’s black citizens from sharing the tables of the roughly 750 worthies—some no doubt the fathers and grandfathers of present members—who gathered there to honor the man they praised, without a trace of irony, as the Great Emancipator. As so often happens, the annual event gradually came to be cause for celebration itself. When The New Yorker’s A. J. Liebling visited George W. Bunn, Jr., then president of the ALA, in 1950, Bunn told him, "They would celebrate Lincoln’s birthday . . . at $25 a plate, and after the speeches everybody would get tight on champagne," concluding, "Lincoln would have been ill at ease in such surroundings."
Springfield’s upper crust was not so desperate for excuses to get tight that they had to continue the Lincoln birthday banquets to do it. By 1924 the board was seeking some more dignified commemorative, and, following the lead of the new president, Logan Hay, changed the organization’s name and the purpose. The ALA became an historical society dedicated to cultivating the then-untended field of Lincoln scholarship.
There ensued what looks today to be the golden age of Lincoln scholarship in Springfield. Beginning in 1925, a succession of executive secretaries hired by the ALA—Paul Angle, Benjamin Thomas, Harry Pratt—unearthed and cataloged masses of Lincoln documents still buried in central Illinois. They were serious men doing serious work, and among them they filled reams of papers, scholarly quarterlies and, in 1950, the nine-volume Collected Works of Lincoln. The ALA, in the words of one scholar, put the Lincoln field in the forefront of modern historical scholarship.
After those halcyon days, alas, the arteries of the ALA, like those of many of its founders, hardened. Hay died in 1944, to be succeeded by George W. Bunn, Jr., who was a better president than the ALA deserved. In 1953, drained by the cost of the Collected Works, the ALA collapsed.
It was quiescent until 1963 when it was revived to assist then-Governor Otto Kerner in the campaign to reconstruct the Old State Capitol. The organization raised some $350,000 for the project—I report that figure without quite believing it—and thus deserves some credit for the job. But as the Bicentennial approached a decade later, the group found itself feeling like the hobbyist who, having just finished assembling a 500-piece jigsaw picture of the Orkney Islands, realizes he’s invested too much effort in it to dismantle it, even though it is useless in itself. Their solution to boost attendance at the recreated statehouse was the Old State Capitol Sound and Light show (official cost $585,000) which was supposed to be the most important such show in the western hemisphere but which only succeeded (because of its lighting equipment) in making the adjacent Old Capitol Plaza look like the deck of an oil tanker.
The seventh and current president of the ALA is Floyd Barringer, a neurosurgeon who serves as head of Surgical and Medical Neurosurgery at a local hospital. Elected in 1971, Barringer is generally credited with trying to reestablish the ALA to its former scholarly eminence. The ALA has revived its dormant publication program with the debut this month of the first Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association. The new number offers an especially useful summary by Mark Neely, editor of the bibliographic Lincoln Lore, of the current state of Lincoln scholarship. (It is evidence of the peculiar fixations of the scholarly imagination, or more accurately of the serendipitous way scholarship gets done, that we have archeological treatises on the contents of Lincoln’s privy but no trustworthy paper on his legal theories as revealed in his voluminous writings on law.) It is a fine piece of work, although its release reawakened my youthful fears that Lincoln was being made a kept man of the rich; when I asked to buy a copy I was told they were not available for purchase by non-members.
Recent scholarship has done much to dismantle the elaborate shell of myth built up around Lincoln, revealing him to be a well-to-do corporate attorney who shystered for the likes of the Illinois Central Railroad, who (like any lawyer of the time would have done) occasionally defended masters against slaves and whose political preoccupations were essentially economic. However much these revelations may pain the more idolatrous among Lincoln’s admirers, they seem likely to further what l suspect has been the ALA’s secret purpose all along, namely to show the world that Mr. Lincoln was really one of them. After all, that segment of Springfield has believed for years that, as one elderly doyenne suggested to Liebling in 1950, "if Lincoln split any rails, it was during a summer vacation from Northwestern, to get himself into condition for football."
To news of Lincoln’s views on race, however, the ALA has had a somewhat less open ear. Today the organization can boast of at least two black men among its roughly 265 members, one of whom also sits on the board of directors. Of course, the almost unrelieved whiteness of the ALA’s Lincoln day banquets no longer is the result of policy. When the Lincoln Centennial Association banned African-Americans from its first banquet in 1909, Springfield black leaders retaliated with a celebration of their own, held in the basement of an east side church. That tradition continues with the annual Lincoln-Douglass banquet sponsored by the local NAACP. One wonders, however, whether we owe the remarkable fact that Springfield still has a black Lincoln banquet and a white Lincoln banquet to ostracism of blacks by whites. I suspect that of late it has been blacks who are shunning the whites as the result of what I like to think is blacks’ principled refusal to ease the burden of the hypocrisy which the ALA continues to carry. Whatever the reason, the doctrine of "separate but equal," having been banished at last from the city’s public schools, survives intact on Lincoln’s birthday.
All this makes the appearance of this year’s guest speaker doubly fascinating. She is Dr. Mary Frances Berry, who will speak about Lincoln and civil rights for blacks. Berry is black. A colleague of mine, recently arrived in Springfield, expressed surprise that the ALA would call attention (as it has done in its promotional materials) to the fact that she is the first black person to address the ALA in seventy years (since Booker T. Washington did it in 1910) and the first woman of any race to do so, as if it were congratulating itself for what most people take as an admission of failure. The ALA’s leadership must be given credit for courage in risking Dr. Berry, who is likely to have things to say that land unpleasantly on the ears of the membership. Whether it is because she is black, or because she is a woman, or both, or because she is reputed to be a woman of tough-minded opinions on what in Springfield remains the most delicate of topics, ticket sales to the banquet reportedly are down significantly so far from past years. ●