Springfield is a journey with the real Lincoln

When I was planning a vacation in Springfield about 20 years ago, a coworker asked, “Why would you go there?” She might wonder again why I went back last week.

The four Australians and the three Brits on the National Park Service tour I took of the Lincoln home, and the two Canadians I met at the Lincoln tomb, understood why.

Springfield molded Abraham Lincoln into the man who would become the greatest US president. Illinoisans can take pride in this role of their state capital in American history. I was surprised that my coworker didn’t think it worth a visit.

Nowhere else can you encounter Lincoln in so many of his stomping grounds. He lived in Springfield longer than anywhere else by far, from 1837 to 1861.

Although my main reason for revisiting the state capital was to see the Abraham Lincoln National Library and Museum, I left thinking about the sights I’d seen before. More compelling for me than the museum’s fabrications are the places where Lincoln actually lived, worked, got together with friends and neighbors, walked, did business, and hung out.

“Hold on to the banister as you go up to the second floor and you’ll be shaking hands with Mr. Lincoln,” the National Park Service guide said in the Lincoln home. “He used that banister for 17 years.”

“This is the original floor, so you’re literally walking in Lincoln’s footsteps,” the guide at the Mount Pulaski Courthouse said.

You do feel Lincoln’s presence in the preserved or accurately restored places. “The Lincoln legacy comes to life” is how the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition, which manages Illinois’s Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area, puts it.

The interior of the Lincoln home at Eighth and Jackson Streets appears as it did in 1860 when illustrators were allowed in to sketch how the newly elected president lived. Dozens of the furnishings there today were used by the Lincoln family. The four-block neighborhood, closed off to cars and with the 10 remaining homes frozen in time, “looks very much like Mr. Lincoln would have seen when he walked out his door,” the guide said.

In Representatives Hall in the Old State Capitol, I felt goosebumps like I did in Independence Hall in Philadelphia thinking about what had occurred there. I was alone in the quiet of the second-floor gallery where Lincoln served in the legislature, delivered his famous “House Divided” speech, and was brought in his coffin so 75,000 mourners could say goodbye.

The entire Old State Capitol has been restored as Lincoln would have known it. He argued more than 200 cases before the Illinois Supreme Court. He used the law libraries to research cases or just mingle with his colleagues. He used the governor’s office as his presidential campaign headquarters, and it’s been reconstructed down to the carpet pattern.

Also downtown can be seen the family’s church pew, its bank ledger, and the train depot where Lincoln bid goodbye to Springfield when he left on February 11, 1861, to assume the presidency. Future visitors will also see Lincoln’s law office with William Herndon, now closed for renovation. I’ve seen it before and expect the renovation will preserve its historical accuracy.

Lincoln put his feelings for Springfield in these words as he boarded the train for Washington: “To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young man to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. . . . I bid you an affectionate farewell.” He expected to return to resume his law practice after leaving the presidency, but we know, of course, that John Wilkes Booth made that impossible.

To complete the picture of Lincoln in his middle years, I visited a couple of courthouses outside Springfield where his legal work took him. The state’s small towns didn’t have full-time courts in Lincoln’s day; judges and lawyers came to them twice a year. Lincoln traveled throughout the Eighth Judicial Circuit in central Illinois for months every year.

The Mount Pulaski and Postville Courthouses, the first original and the second a faithful facsimile, transport visitors back in time with their plain period furnishings. In both of them a very enthusiastic guide filled in a picture of Lincoln’s life on the road, not just his days in court but also his evenings in homes and inns where he related a seemingly endless supply of amusing stories.

Lincoln’s presence throughout central Illinois is enhanced by hundreds of storyboards in more than 50 communities, a project of the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition. Far from being mere “Lincoln slept here” markers, the informative storyboards offer many details about Lincoln’s life and times. I read most of the three dozen storyboards in downtown Springfield. They are placed at the sites of actual events or buildings — for instance, where Lincoln lived when he first arrived in Springfield, got his hair cut (by an African American barber), had his carriage wheel fixed, endured a painful tooth extraction, and bought Mary’s wedding ring. Even when the original buildings are gone, the storyboards reinforce the feeling of being on the scene of Lincoln’s everyday routines.

As for the purpose of my trip — seeing the 12-year-old Lincoln Presidential Museum — I concluded that someone who’s been reading Lincoln biographies, as I have, isn’t the museum’s target audience. The museum is intended to inspire people, especially children, to continue to learn about Lincoln on their own. Its displays are more theatrical than substantive. I thought that an inordinate amount of space is given to re-created scenes — the bedroom in which Willie Lincoln lay dying, for instance — that don’t tell you much. I may have learned more about contemporary museum presentation than about Lincoln.

So, I wouldn’t advise a childless adult to make a trip to Springfield just for the museum, but if you’re going there anyway, sure, see it. To my mind, the reason for making a special trip to Springfield remains what it was before the museum opened in 2005: to experience Lincoln in the places he inhabited.

*****

If you’re wondering why I didn’t mention New Salem, the re-creation of the village where Lincoln lived in his 20s: I’d been there a couple of times and do think it’s worth a visit, but other destinations were more of a priority this trip.

*****

Since returning at midday Friday, I’ve been rereading Ronald C. White Jr.’s 2009 biography of Lincoln. The trip has made the Springfield chapters more vivid, as I can picture Lincoln in place as White discusses Lincoln’s homelife, his speeches in the Hall of Representatives, hours in the Old State Capitol libraries to research legal cases or just be with his colleagues, etc.

White’s Lincoln is for the general reader, and I recommend it as a clear, lively read. Another single-volume, full-life-of-Lincoln choice that is much praised is David Herbert Donald’s 1996 Lincoln. A bookseller near the Old State Capitol thinks that the 65-year-old Abraham Lincoln by Benjamin Thomas hasn’t been equalled.

It is said that Lincoln has been written about more than any person in history except Jesus Christ. How could it not be worthwhile to visit his hometown haunts?

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