Our time in Springfield, Illinois ended in two places where, in a very real sense, we retraced the steps of those who mourned the tragic and senseless loss of our 16th president. The first was the Old State Capitol Building, which looms majestically in the heart of downtown Springfield. We were told that when it opened in 1840, it was hoped that all three branches of the Illinois state government could be housed there. That, of course, proved to be impossible – and by 1876 a much larger building had been constructed to accommodate the rapidly expanding operations of the government. But one can still imagine how impressive this building must have appeared to the citizens of Springfield when they first set eyes upon it. Its massive pillars alone are a marvel!
It is at the Old State Capitol building that Abraham Lincoln delivered what is widely regarded as his first great speech. The year was 1854, and it was one of the first occasions that Lincoln spoke out forcefully (and publicly) against slavery. (He was to do so again a few weeks later in an even more famous speech in Peoria.) It was in this speech that Lincoln demonstrated his cool brilliance by refraining from name-calling and insults, preferring to frame his arguments in reasoned and diplomatic fashion. One of the most intriguing points he made in this speech is that southern slaveowners were being hypocritical in calling their slaves mere ‘property’ – because one would never think of freeing one’s other property, such as livestock, in the same way that slaves were often freed. There was no question that, in fact, slave owners – on some level – thought of their slaves as human beings, but were desperately trying to retain their grip on the indefensible practice of holding human beings in the bondage of slavery. It was also at the Old State Capitol in 1858 that Lincoln boldly proclaimed that “a house divided cannot stand,” words that are as true today as they were then. (By the way, it was here that a relatively unknown Barack Obama announced his formal candidacy for the U.S. presidency in 2007.)
When one steps inside its massive front door, you are confronted with an imposing set of stairways leading in various directions. They are a reminder of how a complex government consists of distinct components- executive, legislative, judicial- that are, nevertheless, connected with one another … and all three are there to serve the citizens.
One of the first spaces into which we stepped was the old chambers of the Illinois Supreme Court. It was hear that Abraham Lincoln, as a lawyer, argued a handful of cases. I was struck by the contrast between the luxuriant beauty of the front of the chamber- where the justices sat- and the plain simplicity of the benches where the public would be seated. I doubt that it was intended as any sort of statement, but I saw it and was immediately reminded that one of the most precious legacies of our country is that such courts of law are a place where even the most ordinary citizens have a right to expect fair treatment under the law.
On our way to the state house chambers, where Lincoln served as a state representative, we passed by the state senate chambers and a special display that honored the Illinois State Ladies Aid. Nowadays, if one ever hears the term ‘ladies’ aid,’ one probably pictures a group of well-meaning little old ladies of little consequence- but in fact these groups made an enormous difference for good, especially in our nation’s most difficult days. This particular display talks about the projects undertaken by the Illinois ladies aid during the Civil War to keep Illinois troops properly fed and clothed during the conflict – and for badly injured veterans to receive the care they deserved. In fact, the women would sometimes occupy the senate chamber itself to do this work – and a wooden wheel chair at the back of the room stands as a poignant reminder of how vitally important their work was.
The primary reason one visits the Old State Capitol is to step into the chamber of the state house of representatives, where Abraham Lincoln himself had sat, listened, and spoke as a state representative- and where, in 1865, his body was brought to lie in state after his assassination. Lincoln’s body had been carried across the country, by train, to be displayed in various communities, but Springfield was the final stop. We were told that every bit of furniture and finery was removed from the house chamber on that occasion, except for the solemn portrait of George Washington that hung on the front wall. Everything else was removed to make room for the stately catafalque upon which Lincoln’s coffin lay. 75,000 mourners are believed to have filed past Lincoln’s body in sorrowful homage to their beloved president.
Our last stop was Oak Ridge Cemetery, on the outskirts of Springfield, where Lincoln is buried in a stately yet somehow simple tomb.
As one enters it, you are confronted by a modest-sized bronze casting of the Daniel Chester French statue that adorns the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. As you make your way through the curved hallway that takes you back to the Lincoln’s actual tombstone, you pass a total of 8 small statues that depict Lincoln at various stages in his adult life. It’s a touching reminder that Lincoln was more than just our 16th President. His life consisted of a striking array of experiences and vocations that combined to make him the remarkable man that he ultimately became.
There had been substantial crowds at both the Lincoln Presidential Museum and the Lincoln Home, but the Lincoln tomb was rather quiet by comparison – and I was grateful for the chance to stand in front of his tombstone and those of his wife and three of his sons and take a couple of minutes for quiet and private reflection.
As one leaves the tomb, you see a huge bust of Lincoln that is famous for its nose that has been rubbed to a shiny sheen by the throngs of people who have touched it over the years. (I did it, too.) It’s quiet testament to the veneration with which he has been held for generation upon generation of grateful Americans.