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Tracing Abe Lincoln’s Springfield, IL, footsteps

By Gerri Nielsen

Fri, Jul 27th, 2012
Posted in Harmony Features

Remember the saying, “Be nice to nerds--someday you’ll be working for one”? Our 16th President was a nerd--a 6’-4,” book-readin’, rail-splittin’, 6-inches-too-short-trousers-wearin’ doofus. He also was somewhat of a loser--he lost jobs, a fiancee, his possessions in a bankruptcy bugaboo, the race for state senator, and a seat in Congress two times. He even lost 3 of his 4 sons to illness and lost face in hundreds of vicious political cartoons during his reign as leader of the country.

Abraham Lincoln is also known as one of our greatest Presidents. He is honored and revered in the town he made his own--Springfield, Illinois.

I am incredibly grateful to have had the experience of learning the highlights and lowlights of Honest Abe at the Horace Mann “Abe Across America” Fellowship in Springfield July 9-13. I won the honor by submitting an application through facebook. Ten teachers earning the most votes were automatically accepted as fellows; the other 40 teachers were selected on the merits of their written application essays. I fit in the latter category.

The group was split into two sections, the first meeting in June. We were thrilled to hear presentations from some amazing historians, researchers, curators, and librarians. We also got to tour the amazing Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM), the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, the old state capitol building, Lincoln’s home, and the village of New Salem, where Lincoln’s life in Illinois started.

The following is a journal reflecting what we did as Abe Lincoln Fellows.

MONDAY: We began with an excellent introduction to all things Lincoln with a presentation called “Lincoln’s Illinois,” presented by Bryon Andreasen, Research Historian at the ALPLM.

Lincoln was born in Sinking Spring, Kentucky, on Feb. 12, 1809, when Thomas Jefferson was ending his term as President--the Founding Fathers were still in charge of the states during Lincoln’s birth and younger years.

Andreasen explained that as Lincoln matured, there were two popular political views in America. In Jacksonian America, people followed Andrew Jackson’s ideas that character and traits are innate--no outside people or geography can influence who a person is. Your personality comes from whom you yourself are. Jacksonians felt every man should be able to own his own farm and grow what the family needed; then people could have real independence. These people branched off Thomas Jefferson’s ideals of an agrarian nation with power belonging to the states: they were the Democratic party, with President Andrew Jackson as their pacesetter.

The Hamiltonians were the opposite. They wanted to save time for moral improvement at home. They wanted to buy their cloth ready-made instead of making it themselves to make more time for leisure pursuits, including reading poetry. They wanted to send their sons to academies. Alexander Hamilton wanted a national bank with high tariffs on input from Britain. He didn’t want to be beholden to the British for their goods. These people became the Whig party, following the Great Compromiser Henry Clay.

Lincoln, idolizing Henry Clay, followed the Hamiltonians. He was a hard worker, a wrestler, a fantastic storyteller. He wanted time to read and improve himself. According to several statues all around the city and several figures inside the Museum, Lincoln was never without a book in his hand. His favorites included Aesop’s Fables, Pilgrim’s Progress, and several Shakespeare plays. He was a lifetime student.

As a youth, he often thought his father, Thomas, gave up too easily when faced with a challenge. In 1816, when Abe was only seven, officials came around and told Thomas that he actually didn’t own the Kentucky land he was living on and would have to pay some large fees to maintain his residence. Thomas packed up the family and moved to Indiana to avoid the confrontation (he also was worried about Kentucky’s status as a border state: he was against slavery). Young Abraham was upset that his father would just walk away without putting up a fight--without educating himself on what the law really was--for his rights.

Jumping ahead a few years, when Abe was 21, his family escaped a second bout with the “milk-sick” disease that had swept their area in Kentucky and now infested Indiana; the family moved to Macon County, IL, in 1830.

Abe now decided to venture out on his own. He was hired by New Salem, IL, store owner Denton Offut to pilot a flatboat down the Sangamon River and sell the goods. He and two other boys would each earn fifty cents a day, plus $20 at the end of the trip if all went well. Near the village, the boat got stranded on a mill dam. Lincoln rolled up his pant legs, stood on the dam, and rocked the boat trying to free her. He finally succeeded after readjusting all the weight to the front of the craft, popping it up, and draining out the water. This predicament led to Abe’s invention of installing pontoons to inflate a flatboat allowing it to sail over sandbars and dams in shallow seasons. Lincoln applied for and received a patent in Washington, D.C., for his invention. As a tinkerer and a student of many topics including geometry, Lincoln was able to get himself out of many a jam.

His river trip eventually brought him down the Mississippi River all the way to New Orleans. Here Lincoln witnessed for the first time a slave auction, an event that would change and guide the rest of his life.

Lincoln’s success on the river journey led him to settle in Offut’s town of New Salem and work for him in his store. He spent 6 years here. He practiced moral and honest values as Offut’s chief clerk; if he made a mistake with a customer’s order, he corrected it as soon as possible. He also became the town’s postmaster and deputy county surveyor. He became well known for his storytelling and was always the center of his social circle.

He met a girl named Ann Rutledge, who had been engaged to another man (he left for work and never returned). The two of them decided they’d both go to college. Before they could even register, a typhoid outbreak took Ann’s life, and Abe was crushed. Later newspapers documented this relationship, and editors tried to smear Lincoln’s political campaigns claiming “Lincoln is a wreck after Ann’s death.”

He decided to dip his toe in the political pool at age 23, running for state legislature and losing. He ran again two years later and won.

Lincoln continued his passion for reading, and encouraged by Springfield lawyer John T. Stuart, Lincoln studied and immersed himself into law. Lincoln often made the 20-mile trip to Springfield to borrow law books from Stuart. He took the bar exam, passed, and partnered with Stuart in their Springfield law office.

He was also re-elected for state senator and served eight years.

After being introduced to Lincoln’s beginnings in the Presidential Library classroom, our group walked across the street to experience the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Before I left for this trip, several people told me I’d love the Museum, and they were correct.

Journey 1 starts with a re-creation of Lincoln’s KY log cabin where 7 people shared one room--10-year-old Abe, his older sister Sarah, his 3 step-siblings, his father, and his stepmother. Continuing on in the journey I saw a dire depiction of a slave auction like the one Lincoln had observed on his river trip. I walked through a replica of the Offut store where Lincoln worked, interfered with a courting session between him and Mary Todd, faced a scene of his Galesburg, IL, debate with Stephen Douglas, read a timeline of his wins and losses through his lifetime, and laughed at him reclining in his law office where his two young sons were wrecking havoc. I watched a creative news reel featuring the late Tim Russert moderating the heated Presidential race of 1860, and then I waved President-elect Lincoln and his family off as they left Springfield for Washington, D.C.

Across the large plaza of the Museum, I entered Journey 2: the White House years. I walked through the door of a large White House facade and was greeted by First Lady Mary wearing a gorgeous gown and floral headpiece. She’s surrounded by replica gowns of her social rivals who could never accept her for her extravagant ways. I traipsed through a funhouse-style room called the “Whispering Gallery” filled with skewed political cartoons that were very unflattering to the President and the First Lady. I heard rumors whispered in the slave kitchen where the stove was hot, and more whispers in Lincoln’s cabinet room where he presented his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to skeptical cabinet members. I was hounded by video images of all the naysayers from both north and south who doubted Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves. I saw Lincoln standing alone debating the issue while voices hovered over him showing their displeasure with his views. I saw colorful paintings and displays covering the Civil War. I sat down for an amazing video called “The Civil War in 4 Minutes” showing the running total of casualties and the shifts of control weekly as the battles broiled on. I wound my way past more paintings and timelines to end up in Ford’s Theater to witness the Lincolns watching the great Laura Keene perform on stage while a dastardly John Wilkes Booth entered the door behind them intent on ending the President’s life. Next, I viewed a map showing the route of Lincoln’s funeral tour--25 percent of the population paid their respects to Lincoln at one of the funeral tour stops. Finally, I sauntered through the last room in Journey 2: a re-creation of the Old State Capitol’s Senate chamber where Lincoln had served. For three days in April 1865, this room was completely draped in black crepe and filled with white flowers as thousands of mourners came to pay respects to Lincoln.

Our group got a special treat in the Museum: a behind-the-scenes tour of the Ghosts of the Library show. We saw how magic is made to create a Union soldier’s narration of Civil War life and what secrets are held in the documents of the ALPL. It’s an amazing show with smoke and mirrors that leaves audience members wondering, “How’d they do that?”

Another must-see show in the Museum is the Lincoln’s Eyes visual show. Several different video screens are filled with an artist narrator who walks viewers through Lincoln’s life. When the cannonballs go off during the war scenes, you need to hang on to your shaking seat!

After our Museum visit, it was clear that the gift shop would lose a lot of inventory to us teachers! Thanks to a mini grant I wrote, I was able to purchase $100 worth of books and posters to bring back to Fillmore Central. Thank you, 1st SE Bank of Harmony, F&M Bank of Preston, and 1st SE Bank of Fountain!

Read the second installment of the series in next week’s Fillmore County Journal!


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9:53:00, Jul 31st 2012

Lizzieben says:
Thanks for taking us on this journey with you. Great article!