The stories surrounding Abraham Lincoln makes him one of America’s great heroes. A trip to Springfield, Illinois, where he spent 25 years as a citizen, lawyer and state representative prior to his presidency (1861-65) gives visitors a look at his humanity.
The first clues about the character of any man are in the way he lives so you’ll probably want to head straight to the historic district at Eighth and Jackson Street and check out his house. Painted in Quaker yellow with brown trim and green shutters, the stunning Greek Revival contains many pieces of the Lincolns’ mahogany furniture. Their placement has been carefully studied with the help of historic photos, 1865 stereocards and 1860 drawings from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
Mary Lincoln chose the family furnishings for their sturdiness given that her husband and sons often wrestled each other on the living room floor and undoubtedly knocked things over. The carpets, wallpaper and drapes may seem a little gaudy in color and pattern compared to today’s styles, but they reflect the elegant and refined tastes of a prosperous mid-19th century Midwestern American family.
As a circuit rider for the Eight Judicial Court (1847-57), Lincoln gained reputation and wealth. Because he was away from home a lot, sometimes three months at a time, he’d buy gifts for his sons, Willie and Tad, among them a stereoscope (worth about $8,000 to $10,000 today) that displayed three-dimensional photographic images like a Viewmaster. The boys’ favorites were Niagara Falls and the Taj Mahal.
Lincoln was a great orator and storyteller and he probably learned this by reading books out loud to his sons in the family’s living room. He loved Shakespeare, Robert Burns and Charles Dickens and his bookcase held both their books and small busts of each author.
His shaving stand and mirror are located in his bedroom (couples at that time had separate bedrooms). He undoubtedly used them to groom himself, including the time he grew a new beard to make himself look presidential, as 11-year-old Grace Bedell suggested he do. His desk is also there.
Lincoln kept paintings and busts of his two heroes, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, in both his home and law office. These “geniuses,” as he called them, sought to preserve the Union from sectionalism and war through compromise.
Lincoln’s house was built in 1839 as a one-and-a-half story cottage and later expanded to a full two stories. The family had an African American maid whom they offered free room and board as well as $1 a day wage (equivalent to $20-27 today). However, Mary Lincoln insisted on cooking meals, a habit she had to break once they moved into the White House. In the backyard, the family had a three-seater outhouse and a garden.
Operated by the National Park Service, the Lincoln Home Center and Neighborhood highlights Lincoln’s legal career, his time on the Eighth Judicial Circuit as well as his early political career. Tour guides eagerly share narratives about his family, the history of the area, the ways of the times.
The Visitors Center provides a short film on Lincoln’s life in Springfield. Free tickets are available at the Information Desk. Parking is $2. The building is fully accessible to persons with disabilities.
Lincoln-Herndon Law Office
A few walkable blocks from Lincoln’s house is Lincoln-Herndon Law Office, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds. A Lincolnophile guide not only explains the history of the office and its many artifacts but also Lincoln’s partnership with William Herndon. The building also contains a replica of a mid-19th century courtroom and post office. The Tinsley Dry Goods Store, located at the back of the building, offers gifts and Lincoln memorabilia.
Lincoln wrote his first inaugural address in this building on the third floor behind the wall of the present building. He hid there because his office was too noisy with many, many well-wishers.
What will also prove fascinating to any history buff is that you walk on the same dark, wide-strip wooden floor that Lincoln did. And like his house, there is authentic period furniture, including one original chandelier and two stunning replicas made by a local tinsmith.
Lincoln’s law office grew in size when he became a senior partner. Visitors will soon realize that Lincoln wasn’t just some hick from a Kentucky log cabin. He was an astute, savvy and wealthy man who knew his way around politics, first as a Whig and later as a leader of the new Republican Party.
The Lincoln-Herndon Law Office State Historic Site is open on Saturdays from 9 a.m.
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