You do not have to seek him out when you come to Illinois. Lincoln’s presence is in so many places that you can feel him everywhere.
When we were in Galesburg, we stopped by the Old Main building on the campus of tiny Knox College. It was there that Lincoln and Douglas had their fifth debate, right on the lawn in front of it. Stirring and inflammatory words were spoken there, by Lincoln and Douglas respectively, which still carry the poetry of passion over the burning issue of slavery.
Yesterday, we made a stop in New Salem, a town which actually was rather new when Lincoln came there in 1831 and faded away after he left. He can’t be credited with either event, but it doesn’t seem too fanciful to think of New Salem as a kind of Brigadoon that appeared to serve a special purpose in forming his life’s direction.
He came somewhat by accident to live there, and tried his hand quite unsuccessfully at running a shop, surveying for the county, being the postmaster, and generally trying on things to see if they fit. His love of reading and learning was the only constant, and it was in New Salem that he developed a deep interest in the law.
With the exception of the cooper’s shop, which is original, all the rest of the village is a reconstruction done by the CCC during the Depression, so the buildings we saw have been here longer than the ones they are based on. Original or not, it does give a wonderful sense of a pioneer community and an idea of the world that formed Abe’s thinking about what mattered to him.
Then it was off to Springfield where he went next, and helped lobby to make it the state capital. When he was first there, there was no Capitol building, of course. But once it was established that Springfield was the place, a wonderful Capitol was built, and the Lincoln law offices were just across the street. There is a sweet sculpture of Mary straightening his tie as he looks across the street at the building, from in front of his office.
The Old Capitol itself is lovely and graceful, and set up as it would have been during the Civil War.
But the best thing to see is the Lincoln home, and the restored neighborhood in which it sits. It was a small, one-story home that they ‘raised the roof’ on and added to as their family grew. It was a charming home and is full of Lincoln artifacts.
Many of the surrounding homes have been saved and restored, making it a very pleasant place to walk and feel the flavor of Lincoln family’s only home and the scene of their happiest days.
Next on the pilgrimage is the Lincoln Museum. This seems like a collaboration between the Smithsonian and Disney World – no expense spared, and some rather amazing scenes. You’ve already seen Knox College and the post office and store in New Salem. Well, here Lincoln is in those scenes.
The overall plan and the displays of the museum are amazing. You start at the log cabin, see Abe courting Mary, the boys playing in his law office, and their eventual move to the White House, complete with John Wilkes Booth lurking outside while Mary tries on one of her many dresses. There is a stunning hall filled with the statements and political cartoons of the day that vilified both Abe and Mary. Really nasty stuff.
There was the death of Willie, the huge conflict over the Emancipation Proclamation, starting in Lincoln’s own cabinet. The war is dramatically memorialized, as is the assassination. Perhaps the most touching part is the recreation of Lincoln’s casket lying in state in the US Capitol. I was in there alone and it gave me shivers. All in all, an amazing story brought to life in an amazing way. Kudos to the State of Illinois.
Our Lincoln story ends at his tomb, of course. It is quite a memorial, and also includes Mary and three of their sons.
What can we say about such a great man? He deserves to live always in our memory and it was good to see so many people streaming to all the places in Springfield that we could share with him.
Vachel Lindsay gives us another view of Lincoln in this town they both shared. Enjoy the beginning of this haunting poem.
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
(In Springfield, Illinois)
It is portentous, and a thing of state