I thought I would do a better job of keeping up with our travels this summer, but it seems I always need time to muse over our experiences. And sometimes I get lost in the weeds, haha. For example, Abraham Lincoln. I had never given Lincoln much thought until we visited Springfield, Illinois.
Everything I Knew About Lincoln I Learned In High School
Before visiting Springfield, everything I knew about Lincoln I learned in high school: He was born in a log cabin, taught himself to read, became President, led our country through the Civil War, freed the slaves, and was assassinated while at the theatre. But that’s an oversimplification of a very complex individual. There have been more than 15,000 books and countless articles written about Lincoln. It’s taking me a while to work through that backlog of material, LOL.
Seriously, though, I came away from Springfield with a much greater appreciation for Lincoln’s skillful leadership and the hardships he endured, and gained some insight into his personality and relationships, which is always my favorite part of history.
I’m betting that many of you know more about Lincoln than I do. But I’ll share with you a few of the things that struck me as particularly interesting during our visit to Springfield.
Visiting The Lincoln Home National Historic Site
Lincoln wasn’t born in Springfield, but that’s where he lived most of his adult life. The Lincoln Home National Historic Site preserves the home Lincoln and his family lived in for seventeen years, as well as the surrounding neighborhood.
In 1837, Lincoln rode into town on a borrowed horse, with everything he owned stuffed into two saddlebags. He was 28 years old, his pants were too short, his hair was unkempt, and he was a self-taught lawyer and member of the Illinois legislature. Lincoln was friendly, hardworking, honest, and a gifted storyteller. People liked him.
Springfield, the new capital of Illinois, was good to Lincoln. Over the next 24 years, he built a successful law practice and furthered his political career. He also met, and after a rocky courtship, married Mary Todd, a vivacious and well-educated woman from a prominent Kentucky family.
During their years in Springfield, they had four sons, and tragically, lost their second-born to tuberculosis.
In 1861, Lincoln left Springfield for Washington as the president-elect. In an emotional farewell speech, he said, “To you, dear friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am.”
The home has been restored in meticulous detail to what it looked like when the Lincoln family lived there. In contrast to her husband, Mary Todd Lincoln cared a great deal about appearances, and created a lovely home (according to Victorian sensibilities).
As our tour group squeezed through the narrow hallways of the house, I hung back at the tail end of the group, imagining Lincoln writing late into the night at the small desk in his bedroom, or Mary left alone to care for the boys while her husband was away for months at a time in his work as a traveling circuit lawyer.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum
We almost skipped the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Photos that I perused online made it look too “Disneyesque” for our tastes. But our friend Pam texted and said, “Don’t miss the Lincoln museum!” She and John were both educators for many years, and we figured if they liked it, so would we.
So we went. And we were very glad that we did.
The truth is that the museum is Disneyesque. That’s because the state hired former Disney “imagineers” to design the museum. That means realistic figures in impeccably detailed historic settings, surround-sound films, and creative special effects. But you know what? It made for an incredible immersive experience.
We were drawn into Lincoln’s world, from his childhood until the fateful night at the Ford Theatre, and emerged with a greater understanding of the factors that shaped his destiny, his personal struggles, and the tremendous obstacles that he faced in his presidency.
Lincoln As A Husband And Father
Much has been written about the Lincoln’s marriage, and most of it paints Mary Todd Lincoln as a crazy woman that Lincoln had to endure. Theirs was certainly not a peaceful relationship. Lincoln was melancholy, prone to depression, and frequently lost in his thoughts; Mary was given to mood-swings and fits of bad temper. But they were well-matched intellectually, and shared similar political aspirations and ideals.
Mary was ambitious, intelligent and outspoken, none of which fit within the narrow parameters of how women were supposed to behave in the 1800s. She was never accepted in Washington society, and was criticized no matter what she did. Life was difficult in Washington for the Lincolns—except for the boys, who were pretty much allowed to do whatever they wanted, including keeping a pet goat in the White House.
Lincoln was known for being an indulgent father to his rowdy young sons. His law partner and friend William Herndon wrote, “The boys would tear up the office, scatter the books, smash up pens, spill the ink and piss all over the floor. I have felt many, many times that I wanted to wring their little necks. Had they sh*t in Lincoln’s hat and rubbed it on his boots, he would have laughed and thought it smart.”
Were the Lincolns happy together? The reality is no one really knows. But what is undeniably true is that they endured enormous stress and pain, including the deaths of two of their young sons and the turmoil of political life and the Civil War. Mary, of course, also suffered the assassination of her husband. And she suffered the loss of their youngest son several years after Lincoln’s death.
Inside The Lincoln White House
Shortly after Lincoln took office, the Civil War began. Lincoln appointed the best minds of the time to his cabinet, although some had been his greatest political rivals. He treated people with kindness and respect, and at the same time, stood firm in what he knew was right, even in the face of overwhelming dissension.
Lincoln frequently used humor to offset his natural melancholy and to make a point, which his cabinet members didn’t always appreciate. But he chided them, “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”
Privately, Lincoln agonized over the war. He lost 30 pounds, spent many sleepless nights, and aged shockingly in the four years of his presidency. But his outward demeanor was steadfast and calm, and he kept his focus on keeping our country together.
As the war dragged on, anti-Lincoln sentiment grew in the North and South. The media was apparently just as inflammatory and destructive then as it is now. Among other wild rumors, Lincoln was accused of being an “African king.” People can be so crazy.
Lincoln’s Evolving Views On Slavery
Although Lincoln is known as “The Great Emancipator,” the story is not quite that simple. The reality is that Lincoln lived in a time of deeply entrenched racial division. Although he was against slavery, early in his Presidency he did not believe that Blacks were the equals of whites. To his credit, Lincoln’s views on the equality of the races continued to evolve throughout his life, no doubt helped along by his great capacity for empathy, critical thinking, and moral courage.
When he was working on the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was bombarded by radically differing opinions. An exhibit in the museum led us through a hallway of holograms, each one loudly expressing their opinion, many expressing outrage. It was all I could do to not yell at them to SHUT UP (Eric said I did yell at them to shut up, LOL). I don’t know how Lincoln managed to think at all in the midst of that chaos.
Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, freeing slaves in the states fighting against the Union. He realized that didn’t go far enough, and two years later, he pushed through and signed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the United States. It was in his final speech, given just after the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, that Lincoln for the first time spoke publicly of his support for Black suffrage. In the crowd was John Wilkes Booth, a white supremacist and Confederate supporter. Booth vowed, “That is the last speech he will ever make!” Three days later, he fatally shot Lincoln.
Timeless Words To Live By
Out of everything that Lincoln wrote, this quote, from his Second Inaugural Address, is what I find most inspiring. It seems just as appropriate today as it did when he delivered it in the final days of the Civil War.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all..let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds..to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” ~Abraham Lincoln
The New State Capitol Building
Construction on the new (and current) Illinois State Capitol started in 1868, and took two decades to complete. We’ve seen quite a few state capitol buildings in our travels, and this one, by far, is the most opulent.
There were some architectural travesties committed to the building in the 1970s in the quest to modernize it (resulting in “ugly”), but over the past couple of decades the building has been undergoing major work to restore its former magnificence. The architect has a cool website that details the restorations and has gorgeous photographs of the interior, including “before” and “after” images that are much better than our photos below.
The Old State Capitol of Illinois
We paid a brief visit to the Old State Capitol, which has been restored to the way it looked during Lincoln’s time. It was here that he served for eight years as a state representative and argued cases before the state supreme court. It was also here that he delivered his famous “House Divided” speech during his campaign for the Senate. Although he lost the race, his speech set the stage for his nomination for President.
Most poignantly, it was here, in the House chamber, that Abraham Lincoln lay in state in the Representatives Hall. In less than 24 hours, an estimated seventy-five thousand people came to pay their respects, and to bid farewell to one of the greatest presidents of our nation.
The Dana-Thomas House: A Frank Lloyd Wright Home
In addition to the spectacular capitol building, Springfield contains an architectural gem designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Dana-Thomas house is one of the best preserved examples of Wright’s early Prairie-style architecture.
In 1902, Springfield socialite, philanthropist, and activist Susan Lawrence Dana inherited her family home. She hired Wright to update the house, specifying that she wanted to keep some of the original floor plan, including the Victorian sitting room because it reminded her of happy times with her family.
Victorian style was not to Wright’s taste at all, and I can only imagine the conversations he and Dana had as the project progressed. But she must have been amenable to the changes—had she not been open to a progressive style of architecture, she would not have hired Wright in the first place.
The house grew to 12,000 square feet and 35 rooms. The low profile, horizontal planes, wide overhanging eaves, and art glass windows create a beautiful and inviting design. Inside, the open concept floor plan is classic Frank Lloyd Wright. The home is filled with hundreds of original furnishings designed by Wright, including oak furniture, art glass windows and doors, and light fixtures. Everything is crafted with the nature-centered, simple aesthetic that Wright is known for.
All that remains of the original home is an odd, cramped little Victorian sitting room with a marble fireplace and ornate furniture, located off of the dining room in an inconspicuous place. I laughed out loud when we entered the room, imagining that it must have been an unsightly wart on the project for Wright.
The Dana-Thomas House State Historic Site is owned by the State of Illinois and admission is free. Our docent was informative and entertaining. I only wish we had been allowed to take photos indoors.
Where We Stayed
We had an absolutely beautiful, spacious waterfront campsite at Sangchris Lake State Park, just 20 minutes outside of Springfield. The park offers electric hookups with water fills throughout the campground, decent Verizon coverage, and nasty bathhouses (we almost always use our own, so it didn’t matter). Best of all was the view and the lake, where we put our kayak in right from our campsite for a paddle on a hot afternoon.
We had another fun meetup with our hometown friends Shannon and Ken at the campground. For a great read on their visit to Springfield (including Lincoln’s tomb and more) check out their blog at Zamia Ventures.