When I was all of eight years old I got a Lincoln Log kit as a Christmas gift. The logs had a strong smell of pine–because it was; and the roof was long pieces of green flat wood which could be laid across the top of a cabin. This was my first exposure to the name of Lincoln as I recall. Naturally, in school we all memorize the presidents, their election dates and their most noteworthy actions. And who cannot recall learning about the “myths” (or were they?) about our presidents –most of which are usually based on some shred of truth (ok, sometimes several shreds of truth bound together in one nice tidy tale).
Visiting Springfield, IL the home of Lincoln was a day like no other for me and I have to believe for any American. I love history–there I said it. My lovely spouse however often tolerates my interest — believe me I know it can be dry stuff at times! But even she got caught up in the Lincoln story.
Truthfully, I came late to the party on American history. In high school I could memorize all the facts that a history class could throw my way. Eventually I became totally enamored with world history; in college I majored in European History with a minor in Asian history. My forays into American history were principally focused on the American Revolution. However, over time the 18th century has become much more interesting to me; and in the past couple of years our 16th president impact on our political system has really captured my imagination.
After having lived through and often participated in social and cultural changes of the past 40+ years one knows that history repeats itself many times over; and no one can avoid criticism even “saints”. Lincoln both the mythic leader and the remarkably fragile human being is so unique because he believed in “turning the other cheek” while at the same time exhibiting a resiliency and a force of will that made him steadfast even during the most bleak of times. Having recently read the “Team of Rivals, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin (a terrific book filled with a significant number of insights American political leadership during the Civil War) a visit to the Lincoln Museum, Presidential Library and his family homestead all located in Springfield, IL was a treat.
Before going much further a confession is required, I am no scholar regarding the history of our presidents, but I am a knowledgeable amateur. I believe that Lincoln has been our greatest president — as some Native American tribes will say “he was a real human being” manifesting all the foibles and strengths that implies. This view is based on his generosity, sense of humor, empathy, his ability to communicate and his capacity to lead under the most tenuous of circumstances. Periodically in history all the stars align and the right person steps forward; one who can grab the reins of power long enough to drag humanity forward in order to overcome the crisis of the day.
Springfield is a living monument to the man as conveyed by buildings, streets and statuary that are forever linked to the man and his family. Visiting his tomb imparts a sadness that in my mind is only offset by the exhileration that lifts one’s heart and mind when visiting the memorial located in Washington, DC. The sculpture of his head which boldly stands in front of the memorial has a golden nose–people rub it for good luck–I did! Interestingly this custom is prevalent everywhere that I have traveled whether here in the USA or overseas. I guess every people can be a bit (or a lot) superstitious.
Lincoln’s immediate family except for the eldest son are buried in this same mausoleum. The cemetery is a public place and although the monument appears to be a bit ostentatious it actually is a humble shrine to the man.
The Lincoln homestead was sold to the government for one dollar by Robert Lincoln the sole surviving member of the immediate family several years after the assassination and is managed as part of an historic neighborhood by the National Park Service. The neighborhood is comprised of 4 square blocks of homes that were developed during the Lincoln era. The following photos are of his house and a few rooms–the parlor, his working desk at home and the kitchen. Our tour guide was Ranger Ronny who hails from Arkansas. He was worth the price of admission as he smoothly understated his narrative with a wry country boy wit.
A leisurely stroll the museum, library and old capital buildings and his former law office awaited us once we finished exploring the Lincoln ‘hood. Cherie and I agree that this museum is one of the top 5 that we have ever visited. I am not bragging when I say that we have been to hundreds of history related museums that have been located in Europe, Canada and the USA. It was interactive and incredibly realistic. The topics covered everything Lincoln with considerable emphasis on the civil war. Taking photos was totally verboten so what you see was taken surreptitiously under pain of expulsion.
The most fascinating exhibit was a collection of newspaper editorial cartoons that really lampoon Lincoln for everything from the primitive nature of his upbringing to his handling of the termination of slavery.
Our current political leaders — of all stripes — could learn a lot if they imitated Lincoln’s leadership and his willingness to hear all views before arriving at a decision. No one’s opinions were slighted; he recognized that he had an ongoing moral obligation to assimilate all ideas and opinions so that he could make a truly educated decision.
Walking back to the car from the museum we saw a number of informational markers and statuary that showed different Lincoln postures.
A visit to his home church–showed the family pew. During this time (early to mid-19th century) a family paid rent on a pew and obtained a deed for “ownership” of that space. This was a key method for churches to gather funds to support their parish.
The emulation of Lincoln can be shameless as one sees all the entrepreneurs hawking a variety of mementos — trashy and profound — around the Lincoln monuments. Still, I am a firm believer that if the general populace embraced the behavioral traits exhibited by Lincoln today’s political discourse would be much more civilized and transparent.
One last comment on the museum is that the crisis demonstrated that the premature graying of presidential hair is not a recent phenomenon. No, when viewing a number of the pictures in exhibit Lincoln is getting noticeably thinner, grayer and his eyes transform as they reflect the strain of tremendous pain and sorrow; the change was the result of personal family tragedies as well as from his role as the president during the Civil War.
I guess I can officially being called a Lincoln and Civil War buff.
Of course there were other things to see around Springfield — more on that soon. Meanwhile, I am heading back to my Lincoln logs.