LincolnÕs back in Springfield


By John Ring


The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum opened amidst a lot of pomp and circumstance last spring. Funded by all sorts of methods — mostly with state and federal tax dollars, with some private help as well — the Museum is more than meeting expectations in terms of visitors and money being pumped into the local economy. It's been nothing short of a resounding success in Springfield.

Naturally, Springfield is full of history. Check out the street names — Herndon, Hay, Stanton and Logan are just a few of Lincoln's cronies from his hey-day. Old Abe rests in peace just about a mile north of the Museum. A statue of him and his family is by the rail station where he left Springfield for Washington in 1861.  And his old haunts, like his house and law office with 'Billy' Herndon, are in Springfield.

I've only been to a few other Presidential Libraries — Truman, Reagan and Nixon — so I'm far from an expert on these things. But a visit to see Lincoln's is a worthwhile trip. Here were a few of the highlights for me.


The  Galesburg Connection

¥ The Museum follows Lincoln's biographical journey from Kentucky to Indiana and then to the Land of Lincoln (Illinois.) As you turn the corner at an exhibit, the wall of Old Main at Knox College stares you squarely in the face and there's Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debating in 1858. It makes sense to feature Galesburg since that debate site, of the seven, is the only physical structure still standing. The contrasts really stand out between the two candidates fighting for the Senate seat from Illinois that year. Lincoln dominates the shorter Douglas in height, if not in stature and oratorical skills.


The Lincoln Cabinet

¥ This exhibit depicts a scene in which Lincoln's Cabinet is debating the Emancipation Proclamation. In truth, this was just one of several issues that Lincoln's Cabinet was divided on. They argued about virtually everything Lincoln's Administration encountered — from Fort Sumter to arming the slaves to firing generals to levying taxes. But the fact that Lincoln surrounded himself with the most dynamic and political animals of the day (many of them were his rivals for the Republican nomination for President in 1860) explains that fact and proves the point of Lincoln's courage in surrounding himself with these so-called political geniuses.


Willie's death

¥ The death of Lincoln's youngest son in 1862 is another exhibit  subject. One of the better touches of this scene is that Lincoln is shown holding Willie's favorite doll, named Jack. On a day when the President was signing pardons for Union soldiers accused of desertion from the firing squads, young Willie Lincoln asked his father to sign one for Jack. Lincoln obliged, writing, "The doll Jack is hereby pardoned."


The Gettysburg Address

¥ One of the five original copies of Lincoln's most famous address is on display. Ironically, it was donated by the family of Edward Everett, who preceded Lincoln's remarks with a marathon two and a half hour speech. Lincoln's more memorable and famous speech lasted barely two minutes. The copy on display was probably written after the President spoke at Gettysburg that day.


Kate Chase

¥ The daughter of Salmon Chase, who was the President's Secretary of the Treasury, is in a display of famous gowns worn by women of the 1860s. I didn't particularly care about that, but Kate Chase had the reputation of being one of the  best looking and smartest women of the era. From all accounts, she was striking. If the wax replica is anything close, she certainly was.


There was also a display of figures at the White House including John Wilkes Booth, which I thought was unnecessary. He was already on display at Ford's Theatre, and I thought this was a bit much. But the replicas of Frederick Douglass and General John B. McClelland were fitting. Lincoln liked Douglass but despised McClellan.

The Gettysburg display was very good but it lacked one of my favorite Lincoln quotes — "I think General Meade will fight very well on his own dunghill," he said of the newest commander of the Union Army in Pennsylvania.

There's also a display on local newspaper editorials and cartoons of that era about the President. Cartoonists of the time drew Lincoln as a jackass, an ape, a drunkard (the day after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation) and a buffoon. It hasn't changed that much.  Contemporary cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has drawn Bill Clinton as a worm, a waffle and a cockroach, and President Bush as a juvenile delinquent and a buffoon.

It would have been nice to have a display on Lincoln's secretaries (John Hay and John Nicolay) and also on Andrew Johnson, his second Vice-President. Another favorite Lincoln quote, on his VP — "Andy ain't a drunkard."

All in all, a good visit. A very well done Museum, just a two-hour drive away, on one of the giants of American history.