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Tracing Abe Lincoln’s Springfield, IL, footsteps, Part 3


By Gerri Nielsen

Fri, Aug 10th, 2012
Posted in Harmony Features

WEDNESDAY: Today included a field trip to the New Salem open-air history museum and state park with our own personal guide, Charles Starling, a retired Illinois Historical Preservation Agency Site interpreter. Charlie gave us all the facts we could ever want to know about Lincoln’s New Salem stay. He was particularly adept at explaining early 1800s-style school to us. He turned us teachers all into students and ran us through our paces in the 1-room schoolhouse experience.

Lincoln attended in total only about one year of school, spread out over five years with five different teachers. His mother, Nancy, also taught him quite a lot at home. Public schools were not available, so parents had to pay $2.50 per student, per quarter, and $3 with grammar and geography. In New Salem, Mentor Graham was the school master during Lincoln’s time, and he was strict. He taught students about money (a half-dollar was actually a dollar coin cut in half; a quarter-dollar or 2 bits was a dollar coin cut in 1/4s, down to a 6-cent piece, the smallest denomination). Graham’s school was known as “blab” school, because either the teacher or the students were blabbing all day--there were constant questions and answers being recited loudly. Readin’, writin’, cypherin’, and more subjects were taught in the one-room school house.

The village contained several log cabins, strong split-rail fences, and an amazing relic--an ox-driven mill, one of only five in existence in the world! Visitors see costumed interpreters who are excited to tell them about Lincoln’s time here, including his work in the two village stores.

Back in our Library classroom, Dr. James Cornelius, the Lincoln Curator of the ALPLM, gave his presentation “Lincoln, Slavery, and Emancipation.” In 1837, when Lincoln was serving his second term as state legislator in the first capital city of Vandalia, he and the “Long Nine” (nine legislators all over 6-feet tall) proposed moving the capitol to Springfield. Lincoln also proposed a resolution that slavery is founded on injustice and bad policy. His resolution failed 73-6, but the capitol site moved.

From 1846-1848, Lincoln found plenty of failure in Congress. He was the only Whig from Illinois and couldn’t pass many resolutions. He came back to Springfield and worked hard as a lawyer in the new capitol building.

Things erupted in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This policy allowed any new state to choose to be free or slave. Up until this act, the Missouri Compromise had kept the slave vs. free state ratio even. Everyone thought this slavery thing would die out with western expansion: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” was the slogan. The KS-NE Act had boxed in the North allowing slavery to be a possibility up through the Dakota territories all the way to Canada. Now, Lincoln knew he had to get involved.

The issue of slavery was something the Whigs and the Democrats had not made a lot of fuss over. In Feb. 1856, these and other political groups gathered after newspapers asked for a convention to discuss slavery. The men focused on ending slavery broke off into a new party--the Republican party. Lincoln then became a Republican. At the Republican convention he said, “ . . . slavery . . . will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

In 1858, 7 debates occurred all around IL between Democrat Stephen Douglas, “the Little Giant,” and Republican Lincoln. Lincoln spoke and dressed badly, cementing his dweeb status. Douglas handily won the seat.

Lincoln one-upped his rival along with two more contenders (John Breckinridge and John Bell) in 1860; Lincoln was elected President. March 4, 1861, was inauguration day, and April 12, the Confederate states fired the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, SC.

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln presented and signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It didn’t come easy--he had written several drafts and had asked his Cabinet members’ suggestions and approval. All the members were against the document. “It’s too soon, it’s too divisive,” they claimed. Lincoln persevered. Cornelius said, “Lincoln was both ahead of his time and out of his time, but he was a leader of his time.”

One of my favorite presentations came next: “The WOW Factor, Behind the Scenes.” Dr. Cornelius, a man similar to Lincoln in stature and passionate about his knowledge for Lincoln, presented us with some amazing artifacts. We watched him put on the white gloves, and we knew we were in for a treat. There were resounding “WOW!”s from the teachers when Cornelius lifted the top of the box encasing Lincoln’s stovepipe hat. Sized 7 1/8 and covered in beaver fur, the amazing hat has a fingerprint-sized scar in the place where Lincoln would have grabbed the brim to tip it to folks on the street. We were standing just inches from this famous hat, and it wasn’t even under glass! Wow! We also saw Mary Lincoln’s priceless diamond necklace, a personal check written by Lincoln to William H. Johnson, his free African-American valet (for $5), and more amazing personal articles from the famous couple.

We finished our day in the computer lab of the Library, checking out all the ways the ALPLM reaches out electronically: they have accounts on facebook, twitter, youtube, tumblr, pinterest, instagram, and more. You can start an amazing adventure at alplm.org. I recommend clicking the “Under His Hat” tab and listening to awesome podcasts from historian James Cornelius telling great stories using primary sources on Lincoln’s life.

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