Into The Great Wide Open: Touring The American West (Part IX)…
The Illinois state capital of Springfield is a place unto its own. It emits a time of another era, but even more so, it casts a spell. Every street corner longs to tell a story and every building has an echo. It draws one into a past that once was, and a present that wishes to draw it forth. It embodies American history at its finest.
For almost 25 years, Springfield was home to one of America’s greatest historical figures. He walked the streets, visited the shops, and frequented the court houses. It was here that he would practise law and hone his oratory skills. The same skills that would put him in good stead for the impending crisis ahead. It was home to a man who stood 6’4” and who would one day become one of America’s most memorable and effective Presidents. He was America’s 16th President, namely Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), or Honest Abe as many would call him.
It’s not easy to write about such a giant of American history. How does one do justice to the trials and tribulations that Lincoln had to endure up to his assassination in 1865? The loss of his mother by age nine, his sister by age 18 and then the early death of his second and third children (Lincoln didn’t live to experience the death of his fourth child at the age of 18 in 1871), would be enough to drown anyone in sorrow. It’s his tragic, but yet successful life that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield does well to explain.
Walking through the exhibit, one learns quickly that America was standing at the brink when Lincoln took office as the first Republican President in March of 1861. By then, seven States had already seceded from the Union and the America that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had forged, looked destined to collapse. Collapse that is, were it were not for the prowess and courage of Lincoln. He faced down the secessionists and led the charge to abolish slavery. Without him, it’s likely the Republic would not have survived.
The ensuing Civil War from April 12th, 1861 to April 9th, 1865 cost some 625,000 lives or approximately 2% of the 31,000,000 people living in the U.S. at the time. Amid the war, on January 1st, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed the Emancipation Proclamation changing the legal status of all slaves to free. As a result, approximately 3.5 million African American slaves were deemed legally free. This eventually led to the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in December 1865, which abolished slavery in the United States. Lincoln did not live to see the Amendment. An assassin’s bullet struck him down on April 14th that year, less than a week after the Confederacy surrendered in Appomattox, Virginia on April 9th.
Lincoln’s legacy lives on and Springfield does a marvelous job of showcasing it. He is laid to rest here at The Lincoln Tomb in the Oak Ridge Cemetery, the second most visited cemetery in the United States. The house where he spent some 17 years of his life is now a well-preserved museum. The building that housed his law offices still stands and the Old State Capitol building still displays an office where he worked as a lawmaker. Unfortunately, he never lived to see the new Illinois State Capitol building, which was completed in 1888 after some 20 years of construction. It’s an exquisite example of French Renaissance and Italianate architecture.
Springfield is worth a visit. From the beautiful sites to the friendly people, it’s one stop not to be missed. As such, it comes as no surprise that Lincoln would attribute much of his success to his time spent here. “To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything,” he said. I could see why.
And so, with Lincoln on my mind, I entered the open road once again. Eastwards towards Ohio I drove, as my journey across the American West quickly wound down. One final stop was yet to come; one final history lesson yet to be learned…
Note: Photos are by the author.
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