Giving Springfield Luster Ever After
Visiting Mr. Lincoln at home
See Illinois (unpublished)
Illinoisans know Springfield as the capital city. The rest of the world knows Springfield as the home of Abraham Lincoln. The two facts are related. Lincoln moved to Springfield in 1837 because it had just been named the new capital; his law career might have flourished in any town that size, but his political career would not. He married, bought the only house he was to ever own, raised a family, and rose to national political prominence, and ran for President as a citizen of Springfield. He left Springfield in 1861 for Washington and war, and never returned alive.
What you see here was part of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. (For more about that project, see “See Illinois” in Publications.) I often had occasion to write about Lincoln tourism in Springfield, and some of this unused material later appeared in other pieces. I must also own up to the fact some material from older pieces, such as Ghost Houses, ended up in the guide draft. With permission, of course.
Lincoln’s presence in the city of Springfield looms larger in death than it ever did in life, to the extent that visitors have long chided it for making too big a deal of it. This is a little like chiding Chicago for making to big a deal of its skyscrapers or its politics. What people in Tokyo or Milan think of Springfield—rather, the fact that they think of Springfield at all—is owed to Lincoln, “Who in the outside world knows anything about Lansing, the capital of Michigan, or South Dakota’s Pierre, or Tallahassee, Florida?” asked writer Jan Morris. “Mention Springfield, Illinois, though, and instantly everyone thinks of Lincoln. His connection with the town was to give it luster ever after.”
The locals are grateful. The City of Springfield recently adopted a new city seal in which Lincoln’s profile figures prominently. The old seal showed the then-new city hall, a symbol that the now defunct Illinois State Register in 1960 complained would mean nothing abroad, “but we cannot think of any country where the face of Lincoln would not be familiar."
Lincoln’s house and tomb have always attracted pilgrims from other parts, of course, but in anticipation of the bicentennial of his birth, in 2009, a massive new presidential library has been built downtown, and new statues commissioned. The town has been plastered with what amounts to billboards depicting his events and personalities of his time in Springfield for the instruction of tourists more averse to opening books than opening their wallets.
Visiting writers ritually note that Springfield itself is dull, but most end up confessing a fascination for its most famous and least dull citizen. Springfield’s dullness adds to Lincoln’s sheen. Jan Morris in 1998 voiced sentiments that are common among the literate tourist.
What made the place so marvelous was the fact that out of an environment so fustian, so fascinating a hero should have emerged. Like it or not, when we consider Springfield and all it represents, we must remember that for 25 years Abraham Lincoln was part of it.”
That Springfield is proud of its Lincoln associations goes without saying, although it is not always clear whether it is proud because he was a great and good man, or because he was a famous one. That the town also tries to cash in on those associations also goes without saying. “Now he belongs to the marketers” is what Edwin Stanton might have said at the President’s deathbed. (A former mayor of Springfield liked to remind people that a tourist is worth 500 bushels of corn and is lots easier to shuck.) Around Springfield and central Illinois, people mark time by Lincoln tourism campaigns, the way folks in Chicago mark time by mayoral regimes or southern Illinoisans by bad floods.
Making Lincoln, the ultimate Dead White Male, into an appealing figure for a generation whose knowledge of history does not extend back much into the pre-iPod era, is a challenge that area officials have undertaken with more verve than taste. The public has been given Lincoln with 1990s spiked hair, and in 2008 the new logo of the Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County depicts Lincoln tipping his top hat as he drives U.S. Route 66 in a red convertible. Such hard sells have generated the inevitably backlash; one Springfield antiquarian bookstore does a nice business on the side in T-shirts bearing his portrait and the caption, ““They’d have to shoot me to get me back to Springfield.”
Life in Springfield, is an ongoing seminar on Lincoln’s life and career. That the Illinois State Historical Society offers a free afternoon lecture program at the Old State Capitol in which scholars explore such topics as "A. Lincoln, Divorce Lawyer: Family Law in early Sangamon County and its impact on Lincoln's Legal Practice" is not remarkable; that such lectures draw attentive audiences of non-scholars perhaps is.
The Lincolns’ house
Many of Springfield’s roughly 500,000 annual visitors find that his house, more than any of the city’s restored sites, speaks most eloquently about Lincoln the private man. Purchased in 1844, two years after his marriage to Mary Todd, the Quaker brown frame house on Eighth Street is the only house the Lincolns ever owned. Today it sits on a partially restored 19th-century residential block, the centerpiece of the National Park Service’s four-block Lincoln Home National Historic Site.
Officially the Abraham Lincoln Home, the house would be more accurately referred to as the Lincolns’ home. Wife Mary Todd was never “the little woman” in the Lincoln marriage, in spite of her small physical stature. The house on Eighth Street was her domain; certainly, it is hard for most visitors to imagine Lincoln as the proper Victorian gentleman at his ease in its relentlessly tassled and doily-ed parlor.
If the Eighth Street house is a far cry from the log cabin where Lincoln was born, it is hardly a mansion. The house originally was built as a cottage, and in the early years of their marriage, the Lincolns slept in a sloped-ceiling attic bedroom that was barely six feet high at its center. Lincoln milked his own cow and chopped his own wood, while the patrician Mrs. Lincoln probably cooked over an open fire at the kitchen hearth.
Lincoln was not so proud of his impoverished beginnings that he did not strive mightily to overcome them. Over 25 years, the house was enlarged twice as Lincoln’s income and family grew. By the time they left for the White House in 1861, the house had swelled to nearly a dozen smallish rooms on two floors and boasted newfangled iron wood stoves instead of the original fireplaces.
The NPS took over the house and the four-block area around it in the 1970s. The result is summed up by journalist Andrew Ferguson in his 2007 book, Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America. What is today the Lincoln Home National Historic Site is as “tidy as if Martha Stewart herself had worked the place over with a toothbrush . . . . and the scene looks frozen and drained of life—a butterfly under glass.”
For visitors to experience the street as the Lincolns did, they would need to see clothes hanging on wash lines. Vacant lots that today look like suburban lawns would have to resemble weedy outposts that no doubt were appropriated by neighborhood kids as playgrounds (and possibly by their parents as dumping grounds). Fences then weren't always painted, and the grass wasn't always mowed.
There is much that a responsible agency would not want to recreate about 1850s Springfield, such as the sting of coal smoke in the air or the stink of hogs in the streets. But Eighth Street could have been dug up and left as dirt; the vision of NPS guides yelling at visitors to remember to scrape their boots before they come inside, as Lincoln and the kids no doubt were yelled at by his wife, is appealing. And what experience would make a visit to Springfield linger more vividly in the mind of tourists than having to use an outdoor privy just like the Lincolns did?
Great Western depot/law offices
Springfieldians have never quite owned up to the fact that, like so many of its ambitious sons and daughters, Lincoln left town for a better job in a bigger city. It was from the Great Western Railroad depot that a train carried him off to Washington. Little of the building that stands today was there on that day in 1861. Only the steps leading to the office that Lincoln’s used as impromptu reception room felt his touch.
The occasion of that leaving inspired one of his more graceful speeches, his “farewell to Springfield.” Made from the rear of the train, the speech full of affection for his old home town, and it is no wonder that the speech is widely reproduced in Springfield. Or rather, the speeches are widely reproduced, for the farewell exists in two versions. At the depot is posted the version that appears in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, which Lincoln gave to a reporter from memory after his departure. The other version, which appears at the tomb and at the present Illinois statehouse, purports to be the speech as it was actually delivered from the train platform. The edited version ("Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young man to an old man...") is more graceful than the extempore speech ("Here I have lived from my youth until I am now an old man . . . "), presumably having benefited from the author’s second thoughts.
Lincoln was neither Southern nor Yankee, but a little of both—a true central Illinoisan. He was not a man of the people, or at least not of his people. He was Whig in a Democratic part of the state, an opponent of slavery in an area that abhorred abolitionism, a teetotaler in a region where hard drinking was considered a virtue. Neither did the man who relished the rough life on the judicial circuit really fit in at home amid the florid wallpapers and bric-a-brac of the house on Eighth Street. That side of Lincoln is more vividly revealed by his restored law offices a few blocks away on the south side of the square overlooking the then-capitol, Lincoln shared space in the 1840 building with two of his partners, most of it William Herndon. It was remembered by visitors for the jumble of papers and books and floors that were swept so indifferently that corn is said to have once sprouted in the corner.
Lincoln’s tomb—more accurately the Lincolns’ tomb, as his wife Mary Todd and three of their four sons rest here too—is a State Historic Site. The tomb stands atop a knoll in lovely Oak Ridge Cemetery, where Lincoln is surrounded by many of his old law partners, family, political associates, and friends from his Springfield days. Springfield's city fathers wanted him buried in a tomb in a glen just off downtown, conveniently near the hotels and restaurants they owned, but the widow Mrs. Lincoln demanded burial in Oak Ridge. Bereft of a tenant, the land downtown was later sold to the state as the site of the present statehouse.
More than a quarter-million people a year come to see the tomb. In 2002, when managers of the state’s historic sites were asked to close one extra day per week to save money, the one site that was kept open all the time was the tomb, to accommodate the travelers who come from around the world to pay their respects to President Lincoln.
Lincoln’s journey to his final rest was eventful. He ended up in Oak Ridge after an unseemly campaign to have him buried in downtown Springfield against his widow’s wishes, in a spot more convenient to the trains and hotels. His corpse was temporarily interred in a vault at the foot of the hill on which the tomb was built during the latter’s construction. His body survived an attempted body-snatching from its vault in the tomb in 1876; after the attempt, custodians had the body secretly reburied on the premises to foil any future theft. In 1900 the body was removed from the tomb entirely and reburied for 15 months while the tomb was reconstructed. Finally it was well and truly buried, ten feet underground in concrete-enclosed steel. There, finally, he is at rest from idolaters and detractors and exploiters and explainers, and the visitor, for a moment, has quiet in which she can contemplate the man. ●