July 21, 2001. Springfield, Ill. Having decided to see Mr. Lincolns home, my son Johnny and I stuffed our saddlebags with only the necessary, hopped on the saddle of the black iron horse and spurred her to move. And move she did.
On our way to Springfield, we drove through Schram City (yes, only one "m"). Johnny thought that we ought to take advantage of our name and immediately open up a restaurant or hotel because he was certain that the seven hundred inhabitants of this fair town would flock to our enterprises, and we would become rich, overnight. Although I liked his spirit, I was forced to dampen his capitalistic tendencies, and he was satisfied with a photograph of him under the city name.
Getting to the Old State Capitol in Springfield already gave us the sense of what it must have been like during Lincolns life. This was a small town in the West. Lincoln rode his horseall his possessions in two saddlebagsinto Springfield in 1837. Its population was about 2,500 mixed with livestock doing their will on the muddy streets. Buildings were Spartan, and not made to last. Yet it was a city of opportunity, a focal point of enterprise, law, and politics.
Lincoln had already made himself into a lawyer, a legislator with a sound reputation, and now was seeking to progress in the world. Although lonely at first, he made friends easily (John Todd Stuart, Joshua Speed, and later, William Herndon) and he kept them. His law partnership with William Herndon lasted from 1844 until his death.
The office they used is now restored to what it must have been like in the late 1840s. It is simple, almost barren, useful but lacking the delicate and graceful. It is easy to envisage Lincoln moving about in the disarrayed office. Small paintings of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster are the only adornments.
There was a German couple with our group and the man just kept repeating, "simple, it is so simple." Well, yes, this is America you see. You will not find glamorous palaces with ornate carvings, no Versailles, no Sans Souci, no Blenheim Palace. You ride through the Illinois plains and see a small town established quite naturally because of location; nothing planned, nothing artificial, just men showing up and working because that is what Americans do. This is the republic of commerce and enterprise, and its genius and beauty is reflected not in ornate halls and granite buildings.
Its beauty has to do with simplicity, clarity, modesty, and function. In 1844 (by then married to Mary Todd for two years) Lincoln bought a cottage on the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets. He paid $1,500 for it, and they would occupy it for seventeen years. Three of their four children were born here, and one died.
The only home that Lincoln ever owned is well preserved (as are a few blocks of other homes surrounding it) by the National Park Service. It is striking that, except for the wooden sidewalks, the area is familiar. It could be anywhere in the U.S. This is also true of the inside of the house. It is a characteristic home of an American family, then and now. Even the backyard is the same as ours is now (sans the outhouse). It is simple, uncluttered, but eminently serviceable. It is what we call middle class. Mr. Lincoln worked hard and rose to it. And he was glad to have the opportunity to do so.
It is no wonder that one of his great short affecting speeches is given on his last day in Springfield (February 11, 1861) as he was about to leave for Washington:
"My friendsNo one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington."
And he did return on May 3, 1865. He was assassinated on April 14, 1865. On April 19, the first of many funeral services was held. On April 21, his casket was placed on a train that would take essentially the same route the inaugural train took in 1861 from Springfield, back. The train traveled over 1,600 miles, stopping for ten services in as many cities, taking sixteen days to arrive in Springfield, only one hour behind schedule.
A crowd of thousands waited for the train and, it is estimated that over 75,000 came to Springfield (its population was about 9,000 by then) during that day and the next to see him while his body lay in an open casket in the State Capitol. It is estimated that another ten to twenty five thousand were en route, but came too late.
On May 4th the funeral procession ended at Oak Ridge Cemetery. With a final service, a final hymn, Mr. Lincoln arrived home.
Johnny and I saw and heard all this and more. And we were in respectful awe of the straightforward simplicity and honesty of it all. No ornate halls, no artifice. This was a normal American town, and we felt entirely at home in it. Then we rode to our house, in a different state, but thankfully in the same country.