“The Most Durable Ghost”
Springfield and Lincoln remain strangers.
February 17, 1977
An early working out of several themes that were to recur often in my writing about Lincoln, and about Lincoln and Springfield.
For all their 140 years' acquaintance, Abraham Lincoln and his hometown are still strangers. Local scholars have squabbled for years over which of a dozen interpretations best explains the contradictions of that most enigmatic of personalities. To some Lincoln was a stern Yankee foe of slavery, to others a racist of the worst Southern stripe. Some saw him as a slick corporate lawyer whose success at the bar earned him a coveted place in the professional middle class, while to others he remained a country bumpkin with mud on his boots. To some he epitomized political ambition, while others believed him to have been henpecked by a domineering wife into a career for which he had no real appetite.
This ambiguous attitude toward Lincoln has deep historical roots in Springfield; even his contemporaries were uncertain in their allegiance to him, and gave him only the barest of victory margins in the ' Presidential races of 1860 and l864. It should be remembered, however, that Springfieldians—voters and scholars alike—have been no more divided in their opinions of Lincoln than they have been over most other public questions. The Sangamon valley marks the confluence of the two principal migratory streams that peopled pioneer Illinois in the early l800s. One of these streams carried border staters and Southerners to Illinois, the other Yankees from the East.
Each group brought with it differing views of government, God, and man. Politics was the arena in which these contending cultures fought for dominance. Not surprisingly, politics in antebellum Springfield was a high-spirited and fractious affair. Imported sectional rivalries manifested themselves in splits between Democrats and Whigs, states-righters and abolitionists, Copperheads and Union men, The gap could be measured by the distance between the two men to whom Springfield gave its political loyalties. One, Stephen A. Douglas, was short and stout, a fiery stump orator, a Democrat; the other, Abraham Lincoln, was tall and spindly, a spinner of homespun tales, a Whig and, later, a Republican. Two different men, two different cultures, and two different concepts of America.
Some historians have recognized in this cultural mix a key to Lincoln’s greatness. In his book, Here I Have Lived, which explored A the relationship between Lincoln and his home city, Paul M. Angle asked: "Could he have understood, and solved, the problem of the Border States with a quarter-century’s association with neighbors whose backgrounds and prejudices were closely akin to those of the people of Kentucky and Missouri? How much of his own cautious sureness resulted from the conservatism of these same neighbor? . . . To what extent were the Southerners of his home city responsible for his refusal to adopt a policy of vengeance towards the conquered section?" The questions provide their own answers.
The effects of Lincoln, alive and dead, on Springfield area more difficult to gauge. The economic impact, to be sure, is obvious and substantial—it is frequently charged that profit lies at the root of the city’s attachment to its martyred hero—but those looking for evidence of some ennobling influence on local political or moral life are likely to be disappointed. Many years ago George W. Bunn, Jr., himself an amateur Lincoln scholar, noted to a visitor that Springfield had not always been the sort of town Lincoln would have been proud of. True. But it has always been a town he would have understood. ●