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Tracing Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, IL, footsteps - Part 5

By Gerri Nielsen

Fri, Aug 24th, 2012
Posted in Harmony Features

This story is the fifth and final in a five-part series about Gerri Nielsen’s trip to Springfield, Illinois.

FRIDAY: Friday morning brought Mark Johnson, Historian at the IHPA back. He introduced us to 1800s newspapers. The Sangamo Journal began in 1821 as Springfield’s local paper, and it’s now the state’s capital city newspaper. Lincoln called the Journal his friend. The cost of sending newspapers was very minimal compared to the expensive letters. A large (25” by 19”) 6-page newspaper could travel about 400 miles and only cost 1 1/2 cents to purchase. Local information had to get passed around, so newspapers were made affordable for every home. 90 percent of all pieces moving through the post office were newspapers.

Sangamo Journal subscriptions were delivered to the post offices in small towns; in Springfield, people picked up a copy at the newspaper office. Carriers started delivering much later. There were special New Year’s Day advertisements printed and displayed on the front page to remind subscribers to give their carriers a big tip.

Though many of today’s newspapers are neutral or objective, the Sangamo Journal was violently Whig, and then Republican when the party was created.

Our last presenter of the week was Jason Stacy, assistant professor of U.S. History and Social Science Pedagogy at Southern Illinois University. He spoke passionately about Walt Whitman, a memorable poet of Lincoln’s time. Whitman self-published his book of poetry Leaves of Grass to preserve the union. He never intended for Lincoln to read his book, but he wanted to serve the same purpose as Lincoln in preserving the nation. “Oh Captain, My Captain” is Whitman’s famous ode to Lincoln. Whitman said it’s the people that are the United States.

Both Whitman and Lincoln believed in freedom but said some racist things which didn’t seem so liberating. Neither man was a radical abolitionist; in fact, there is some hypocrisy to their remarks. In Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas, he puts the two races separate but holds the white race higher.

A New York City native, Whitman focused his beliefs and poetry on his observations of people as workers. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, America was an Artisan economy. A worker started out as an apprentice working in a master craftsman’s shop and being fed and housed by his teacher. He then struck out on his own, traveling around and getting more experience on the job as a journeyman. Finally, he settled down, opened his own shop, became a master, and took on new apprentices, guiding them in their journey. It was a society where people were cared for “cradle to grave.”

Manifest Destiny insisted on creating new states, filling the continent east to west, and expanding the cotton economy. International immigration to NYC began along with immigration from rural areas to the city. Whitman paid attention and was worried about some of the changes.

Assembly line workers replaced the Artisan economy; each worker knew only one part of a job and did it well. These workers started earning wages for the jobs they did. They were unskilled, or only knew one small part of an entire craft, and then were laid off or fired if they were injured on the job.

A financial depression and the breakdown of the Artisan economy and rise of industrial economy created the need to grow and spread the slave economy to the west.

Whitman commented on a growing slave economy with irony. He felt slavery’s freedom to exist threatened everyone’s own freedom--if Africans can be made slaves, so can anybody. He said for others to “familiarize yourself with chains and bondage--you are preparing yourself for them.” Lincoln also believed anyone could become a slave. Both men believed slavery is not other people’s problem.

Frederick Douglass, former slave and African-American writer and orator, was asked to speak in his hometown of Rochester, NY, on July 5, 1852. He chose to educate the crowd on the true feelings of the slaves at Independence Day time: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fonted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy--a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

Lincoln found it difficult to know his heart on the slavery issue. In his fourth debate with Douglas on Sept. 18, 1858, he said, “I will say that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races--that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. . . .” Was he politically suave, trying to keep Confederate hatred at bay?

There wasn’t such a concept as racism in the 1800s--people making an ethnic comment on the street then would be commonplace; now we’d call it insensitive or bigoted. The world is a different place in the 203 years since Lincoln’s birth.

Just as in history class in school, all these facts are so much more real and impressive when you’re actually standing in the spot where they happened. Learning about Lincoln and the Civil War is more exciting when you’re hearing from volunteers and historians who are completely enveloped and passionate in the topic. My best advice for all students, young and old, is to travel to the source to glean all you can from people who have so much to share.

To all teachers: please apply for this fellowship program next year! (Go to HoraceMann.com and click the teacher’s lounge tab.) You don’t have to be a history teacher: my group was comprised of teachers of history, elementary, special ed., ESL, language arts, German teacher, and even a superintendent!

To all students: make history come alive by stepping out of the classroom. If you haven’t been to your local history centers (Forestville, the Fillmore County Historical Museum), start there. Stepping into the past makes you understand and appreciate the present.

To all nerds: keep on doing what you’re doing. The world is a much better place with the efforts of nerdy Abe Lincoln. He freely admitted he wasn’t a looker or necessarily stylish, but his peers couldn’t help but look up to him in more ways than one.

This experience was outstanding for all of the fellows. We were treated like royalty from beginning to end with all expenses, including travel, lodging, and all meals, paid by Horace Mann, headquartered in Springfield one block away from the ALPLM. The staff and volunteers of the ALPLM are knowledgeable and welcoming. Citizens of Springfield are helpful and pleasant. I am so thankful to have experienced firsthand so many Lincoln facts and to have walked many steps where he did.

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