Becky’s spring break was coming up. We decided a getaway was in order, so we dragged out the atlas and imagined a circle with our house at the center. Springfield, Ill., fell within the circle’s area and was less that 300 miles away.
We have visited Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky as well as his boyhood home in Indiana, but as relatively close as it is, I had never been to Springfield. Becky hadn’t been there in years. We decided to make it a Springfield spring break.
From the city’s website and the ubiquitous brochures available to the myriad place names and historical sites connected to our 16th President, it is clear that Springfield realizes what a valuable tourist attraction it has in Mr. Lincoln. It was also obvious after listening and talking with the guides and people who live there that Springfield residents are genuinely proud of their Lincoln connection.
Becky and I tend to approach our vacations not only as a chance to recharge but as an opportunity to learn. We did both.
Our first stop was the newly renovated Lincoln Museum. Since its opening in 2005 it has been ranked the most visited presidential museum in America. We learned of Lincoln’s life and times in a very modern, high-tech setting.
Some historical traditionalists have criticized the museum for presenting complex historical material in a simplistic manner, prompting some historians to refer to it as “Lincoln Land” and “Six Flags over Lincoln.”
While the displays do not delve deeply into a complex historical period, they are a good introduction to someone who has just a little background knowledge of the times. For those who want a more in depth experience, the Lincoln Library which houses papers and artifacts from Lincoln’s life and the Civil War is across the street.
We visited Lincoln’s law office where we learned that in the 1830s the requirements for calling yourself a lawyer were that you be “an honest man,” and you stand before the state supreme court for an oral examination. We visited the Old State Capitol Historic Site where Lincoln would have taken that oral exam and where he announced his candidacy for president in 1858. This same historic building is where Barack Obama announced his candidacy in 2007.
Neither of us was surprised to learn that in many ways politics hasn’t changed much. In the state legislature of the time, sides were drawn and passions were high about issues that seemed unsolvable. Words often got heated and legislators sometimes came to blows. Fascinating.
I’m trying to picture Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid duking it out on the Senate floor. (Give me a second while I let this play out in my head.)
We learned that Abraham and Mary Lincoln were not strict disciplinarians to their boys, to say the least. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, referred to Willie and Tad Lincoln as “brats.” This assessment of the boys seemed to be the agreed upon opinion of nearly all the neighbors and acquaintances who knew the children.
Herndon says they, “...romped into the office, scattered papers helter-skelter, upset inkwells and stacks of books, and left the place a shambles” while Lincoln lay stretched out on the couch oblivious to the chaos around him.
Abraham was also indulgent to his wife, Mary. At their house, we saw the newest, top-of-the-line, cast iron stove he bought for her. She loved her stove and wanted to take it with them to Washington, but he assured her the Executive Mansion most likely already had a good stove. At any rate, it would be there when they came back home to Springfield.
Things didn’t work out that way, of course. Over 12 days in April of 1865 the Great Emancipator’s funeral route wound its way 1,654 miles from Washington through several cities back to Springfield. His tomb and monument sit high on a hill in the city’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. It is a massive and imposing granite structure, fitting for such a giant of American History.
During our getaway Becky and I managed to take a deep breath from our day-to-day, and we learned something. By the standards we set for ourselves, the Springfield spring break was a vacation success.
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.