One delightful fringe benefit to making the long trip to southern Missouri for the wedding of Mike Anderle and Alicia Petzoldt is that we were finally able to do something that we have talked about for years but never quite managed to do: visit Springfield, Illinois and tour the home of our beloved 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. I remember Kathy and I talking about this back in 2009, which was the 200th anniversary year of Lincoln’s birth- but we decided that it might make more sense to visit during a ‘normal’ year when we wouldn’t be fighting such enormous crowds. But one ‘normal’ summer after another went by and we just couldn’t (or didn’t) make it happen. (Springfield is 260 miles away, which is an awkward distance for a trip. It’s not close enough to be a hop skip and a jump away and certainly not a visit you can accomplish in one day. But it’s also not so far away that you’re galvanized to sit down and plan it as a proper and major vacation.) So the idea just kept percolating on the back burner, waiting for the right circumstances to come along. And even though I’m the presidents buff in the family, it was Kathy who actually figured out that Springfield was pretty much right on our way to the wedding and suggested that we leave one day early in order to make this stop along the way. (Kathy had been there back in her childhood, but that was long before the beautiful new Lincoln Museum was built. I had never ever been there.) So, as has been so often the case in the last quarter century that we have been married, I have my wife to thank for making something terrific happen.
On our way to Springfield on Thursday the 6th, we stopped to gas up at the exit for something called New Salem, which two different Facebook friends had recommended as an interesting pre-Springfield stop. But it was a blazingly hot day with not a cloud in the sky, and for some reason we pictured the New Salem settlement as a bunch of cabins baking in the hot sun with nary a tree in sight – so we decided to press onward. (Since then, I’ve seen some photos that proved us wrong; there are plenty of trees in and around the New Salem settlement.) It turns out to have been a good choice because it allowed us to arrive at the Lincoln Presidential Museum by 3:00, which gave us the two hours necessary to thoroughly explore the museum before its 5:00 closing. We did not know any of that; we had nothing but Dumb Luck to thank. (It’s not the first time that this has been the case!)
It is no small feat to celebrate the life of a figure like Abraham Lincoln – and it is especially challenging to convey both his towering greatness as well as his ordinary humanity, but this museum somehow manages to achieve all of that in amazing fashion. I love how it invites the visitor to follow the course of his lifetime …. from his childhood to his various occupations to his political career and finally his presidency. One ends up marveling that such a great man could emerge from such humble beginnings- yet also understanding that it was his humble origins and the various twists and turns of his life thereafter that ultimately shaped him into the man we now revere.
They do not shy away from the brutal reality of slavery- and there is moment in our journey through Lincoln’s life where we’re shown an image of something that Lincoln very likely witnessed as a young adult: a slave auction. In the context of other images that are much more idyllic, it is shattering to both see and hear this. But the museum does not sugar coat one of the most uncomfortable realities of Lincoln’s story- that he did not always oppose slavery, and that even as president he seems to have favored the controversial notion of American slaves being taken back to Africa.
Of course, Lincoln does come to firmly oppose slavery and expresses his opposition in his famous Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 … which may not have had far-reaching substantive effect, but it still had enormous significance as a statement of resolve and intent. I love the place in the museum where we see the wall covered with various reproductions of the proclamation as it was initially printed and circulated around the country. There is also a poignant depiction of President Lincoln staring down at a copy of the proclamation, reflecting on the powerful words he has just written: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
I also appreciate that a museum designed to celebrate Lincoln’s greatness does not ignore the savage and unstinting criticism which he had to weather for all of his presidency – but especially in the early going. There are three different rooms in which the walls are covered floor to ceiling with framed political cartoons (nearly one hundred in all) that pull no punches in depicting the 16th president as an inept, pitiful country bumpkin …. and worse! People living in America in 2017 might be forgiven for assuming that we have descended to new low’s of nastiness in our political life, but such is simply not the case. Lincoln endured scathing criticism and ridicule – and endured it with astounding grace and patience.
Mary Todd Lincoln is also memorialized, and when one first enters what are supposed to represent the doors of the south portico of the White House, one is confronted by the figure of Mrs. Lincoln dressed in one of her finest gowns – with other beautiful gowns displayed around the perimeter of the room.
Of course, Mrs. Lincoln’s time as First Lady was shadowed by heartbreak when she and her husband had to bid farewell to their son Willie, and I appreciate the sensitive way in which this moment of crushing loss is conveyed.
As for the war over which Lincoln presided, there are dramatic paintings and photographs to bring the conflict alive, as well as a fascinating animated map in which one can watch the war unfold. In the bottom right hand corner is a timer that shows the ticking of the calendar, day by day, and right beneath the date are the casualties for the south and the north – and whenever a significant battle is fought, one sees and hears and explosion at that point on the map as the name of the battle appears: Vicksburg, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg. It was a shocking surprise to see that the north actually suffered more casualties than the south (especially in the early going- but even to the very end of the war) and the total number of deaths – 620,000 – is a chilling indication of what a brutal conflict this was. One can hardly imagine what it would have been like for Lincoln to bear the overwhelming responsibilities of commander-in-chief through such a conflict, with so much hanging in the balance.
It is challenging to tell a story that – at least in its broadest terms – everybody knows. Pretty much every American, from age 8 to 88, knows that Lincoln was cut down with an assassin’s bullet, so it’s nothing that will come as a shocking surprise to anyone who visits this museum. And yet … somehow … when we turn the corner and are confronted with the scene at Ford’s Theater, it is shocking and sickening – much more so than I would have thought possible.
And in the very next room is a darkness-shrouded recreation of the catafalque on which Lincoln’s body was displayed in Washington D.C. and in a number of cities on its way back to Springfield.
One last image from the museum is worth mentioning. It is a series of five different photographs of Lincoln, from 1860, 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864 and 1865. One only has to look at the first and the last photo to see the toll taken by the responsibilities of the office.
One also sees what the presidency cost him in a life mask that someone at the time famously insisted had to be a death mask because of the appearance of the face- but no, this mask was made of Lincoln late in life, and in it we can see the marks of weariness and anguish. Surprisingly, visitors to the museum are invited – and in fact encouraged – to touch the life mask. It is powerfully moving to do so, and it brings us remarkably close to the man who did so much to preserve our nation.