Our 16th President: Funny and quirky human being behind icon
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
He didn't like for people to call him "Abe."
In 2012, Abraham Lincoln has become an iconic figure for Americans. Schoolchildren learn about Honest Abe's humble origins, dynamic deeds and tragic death. His visage is on the $5 bill and his profile on the penny.
Abraham Lincoln was, however, a man – flesh and blood with all the foibles, disappointments, joys and struggles that come with being human. In Springfield, Illinois' state capitol, and Lincoln, located about 40 miles north of the capital, there are reminders of Lincoln the man.
"He was a father and a friend – and a guy who told dirty jokes," related John Popolis, museum technician at the Lincoln Home in Springfield. "He was one of the boys. That was one of the reasons he was so popular."
The town of Lincoln was named in 1853 – almost a decade before Lincoln became president – and is the only town named for Lincoln while he was alive.
Lincoln College, originally founded as Lincoln University, was the only college named for Lincoln before his death.
On the Lincoln College campus is the Lincoln Heritage Museum, which has a broad collection of items about the 16th president. Anne E. Suttles, assistant director of the museum, said the collection covers all phases of Abraham Lincoln's life but with a focus "on Lincoln the lawyer."
Lincoln's adult life in Illinois began with his move to the new town of New Salem in 1831. There he ran a store, worked in the region as a surveyor and studied – and began practicing – law.
New Salem was in its heyday when the young Lincoln was there. There were several stores, a school, a carding mill, a blacksmith shop, a sawmill and a tavern. The town had drawn settlers from all over including a Dartmouth educated physician.
New Salem dwindled into oblivion when it became apparent the Sangamon River was not well suited for steamboat travel. Few people remained there a decade after Lincoln came to what seemed to be a bustling up-and-coming town.
Lincoln's surveying and then his circuit-riding law practice often took him through the area around what became Lincoln. Lincoln himself attended the naming ceremony in 1853 and christened the new town with juice from a ripe watermelon.
The then growing area of Illinois was "where Lincoln developed his ideas and his moral ground," Suttles said.
"We like to focus on Lincoln in Illinoisâ ¦ before he was president, before he was in Congress, before he became the Lincoln we all know and love today," Suttles said.
"He wasn't your typical lawyer. He charged whatever amount he felt he deserved," Suttles said. Some other attorneys were not happy with the lower fees Lincoln typically asked of clients.
Scholars have also noted "how he worked with women and families," Suttles said. "Women tended to get a raw deal (in court) in the 1840s and 1850s." Lincoln frequently represented women in divorce cases and sought to get equity for them.
Suttles also noted the subtlety of Lincoln's thinking. During the Panic of 1837, Lincoln handled a number of bankruptcy cases. "The fact that he had a large number of bankruptcy cases is startling to some people," she said.
When Lincoln himself faced financial ruin in his New Salem days, "he didn't file for bankruptcy," Suttles observed. "He paid everyone back."
Lincoln came to Springfield when there were 2,000 residents in the growing town. "You know everybody. You see the same people – day in and day out," Popolis said.
By the time Lincoln left for the White House, Springfield's population had soared to 12,000. "The growth of the city was exponential," Popolis said.
Lincoln met Mary Todd in 1839 when she moved to Springfield from Lexington, Ky. to live with her sister. After a courtship with many ups and downs, they married in 1842.
The bride and groom came "from different worlds," Popolis said. Mary Todd had grown up as the daughter of a wealthy slaveholder. Popolis spoke of "the height of frontier wealth and the bottom of frontier poverty meeting in the two families."
The two-story Lincoln home in Springfield is a comfortable home with some elegant touches. It was the only home Lincoln ever owned.
When the Lincolns left for the White House, they had a big tag sale. "They got rid of" many household furnishings, Popolis said, some of which have made their way back to the home over the years.
Many of the furnishings were destroyed because they were purchased by Lucian Tilton, a railroad executive who rented the house when the Lincolns went to Washington. Tilton remained in the house until 1869, then moved – taking many Lincoln pieces with him – to Chicago.
"Everything he had was destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871," Popolis said.
Abraham and Mary Lincoln were unconventional parents in their day. Suttles said that energetic Tad would probably be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder today. Visitors often were struck by the Lincoln boys' activity and noise.
Their parents were happy for their children to act like children. Abraham Lincoln particularly was determined that his sons would have a real boyhood.
"When Lincoln was little, he worked. He never really had a chance to be a kid," Suttles said. Mary Todd Lincoln had chafed under the stringent standards of her stepmother and was also comfortable with a more relaxed regime in her own home.
The Lincoln's son, Eddie, died in 1850 shortly before his fourth birthday. The death of Willie Lincoln in the White House in 1862 was something both parents "took very hard," Suttles said. At the same time, Lincoln was dealing emotionally with the human cost of the Civil War.
"The huge amount of casualties" was something that was always in the president's mind, Suttles said.
"Lincoln, while president, was a huge fan of invention. He talked a lot about the railroad being the future," Suttle said. She said Lincoln saw new technology as "the key to the future" and was always interested in the next leap in invention.
His assassination in 1865 was felt with personal anguish by many who had known the president during his years in Illinois.
Lincoln's cortege traveled by train from Washington to Springfield. "The train stopped in each state," Suttles noted. Crowds lined the tracks, and 75,000 people gathered at the train station in Springfield as his coffin arrived.
Springfield leaders wanted to bury the fallen president at a prominent site, but Mary Todd Lincoln and her surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, insisted on his burial at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Visitors still can tour Lincoln's tomb there, and it is a tradition for visitors to rub the nose of a large bust of the president nearby.
Understanding Lincoln is an ongoing process. Daniel Stowell, who grew up in Newnan, is editor of Lincoln's papers and from time-to-time encounters something new relating to the president of Civil War times.
"History is continually evolving," Suttles reflected. "We're finding out new things every day about Lincoln and his time."