If Illinois is the "Land of Lincoln," Springfield, Illinois, a bustling city of 114,000 inhabitants and contentious politicians, is its heart and soul. Springfield is Lincoln’s town. Lincoln’s name and profile adorn everything from roadsides to restaurants, sanctuaries to saloons. His home and the neighborhood where he lived remain intact. Also intact is the pew where he worshipped and the law office he shared with William Herndon. Springfield celebrates Lincoln. Here, his life and his legacy are inescapable.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield opened its doors in April 2005. A sleek and modern complex, its designers filled it with automated figures of the former president and interactive displays in an effort to make Lincoln relevant to a generation raised on video games. Their motives are noble: to enable us to encounter the real Abraham Lincoln through the miracle of silicon chips and circuit boards.
Encountering the real Abraham Lincoln has always been an elusive task. Martyred within a week of the close of the Civil War and nearly deified by 143 years of stories, biographies and anecdotes, the real Abraham Lincoln lies shrouded in a host of saintly, iconic images and hackneyed folklore.
But in the heart of Springfield, two places remain where the real Abraham Lincoln can yet be found: the Hall of Representatives in the Old State Capital building and the tiny Great Western train station that sits in the shadow of the new Sangamon County courthouse. The two places could not be more different.
The Hall of Representatives is a reconstruction of the room where Lincoln and Stephen Douglas once served, recreated from old tintypes and newspaper engravings dating back to Lincoln’s time. The chambers were dismantled and torn down long ago. The present room- indeed the entire interior of the Old State Capital building- was reconstructed more than thirty years ago after the building itself was dismantled and rebuilt, stone by stone, on its present site.
The Hall is visually stunning. Its floors are planked oak. From those floors rise white columns that support a balcony ringing the rear of the great hall. Oak desks with cubbyholes for bills and correspondence are arranged in parallel elliptical rows separated by a center aisle of red carpeting. Over-arching the room, a coffered white ceiling gives the room a sense of height and elegant grandeur. It is a place, one senses, where great things have happened.
In contrast, the tiny brick Great Western railroad station located near 10th and Monroe Street conveys no such impression. Unlike the Old State Capital, it occupies neither a grand site nor manicured grounds. The station sits hard against a major thoroughfare of Springfield, on the edge of a freight yard ringed by modest homes and ignored by the traffic that flows by. Yet, historically as well as intellectually, it is the logical extension of the work done in the ornate Hall of Representatives, linked to it as surely as an explosion is linked to a spark:
"If we could first know where we are, and wither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now into the fifth year since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other."
These words—the opening paragraph of Lincoln’s acceptance speech as the Illinois Republican Party candidate for the United States Senate in 1858—define the great Hall of Representatives. They echo in your ears as you stand outside the chamber. They resound throughout history as a defining moment for America and for the world. They were the public expression of the crossing of one man’s Rubicon: the recognition that Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration of Independence either meant what it said or was merely the propaganda of a dead generation. Lincoln’s words catapulted him to national prominence, marking him for the presidency in the North and making him the man most feared in the South.
The speech’s enduring quality lay in the manner in which Lincoln had seen and defined the issue. It laid out the question of slavery, as Carl Sandburg described it, "so plain that two farmers fixing fences on a rainy morning could talk it over," or, as Thomas Jefferson once said of the Declaration of Independence itself, in a fashion that set forth "the common sense of the matter."
What had aroused Lincoln was the illogic of the United States Supreme Court. The Dred Scott decision, announced in March 1857, declared that black men and women were excluded from the phrase "all men are created equal." Lincoln’s objection with Chief Justice Taney was visceral. He saw the United States as unique among nations. It was not a society created from an ancient culture or common bloodline. It was, as Garry Wills so eloquently argues in Lincoln at Gettysburg, a nation founded on a moral proposition. Lincoln believed Jefferson’s rhetoric applied to the black slave because Lincoln had the audacity to believe it applied to himself.
Lincoln’s origins—poor, uneducated—were far from aristocratic. Yet he had risen from his humble origins to become the chief spokesman for Illinois’ newly formed Republican Party. For Lincoln, his life was an affirmation that Jefferson’s prose could not be limited to New England aristocrats or to vested Southern gentry. If the opportunities of freedom applied equally to the aristocrat and to the common man alike, if equality were the "self-evident" truth of natural law, slavery could not exist in a nation dedicated to such a proposition.
Lincoln’s "House Divided" speech would form the backdrop for the crucible of the Civil War. That war would test Lincoln’s faith that the Union would not be dissolved and provide the means by which the nation would become all one thing or all the other. And it would fall to Lincoln to guide the fragile ship of state through those terrible waters. Less than three years after speaking those words, Lincoln would find himself standing near the corner of 10th and Monroe Street in a light rain awaiting the arrival of a steam locomotive that would carry him from his beloved Springfield to Washington D. C., to the conflict he feared and, ultimately, to the world.
We, who have been granted the privilege of history, know how it would all play out. Standing today at the tiny Great Western station, we know the tracks that lead from Springfield would eventually extend Lincoln’s ideals of equality and a government of, by and for the people to every corner of the globe. Those ideals would destroy slavery, remake America and republican democracy in the 19th Century and eradicate European monarchies and their related colonialism in the 20th. They would stand as bulwarks against the backlash of Jim Crow, form the heart of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and crush the great totalitarianisms of Fascism and Communism. The tracks that lead from Springfield led through Selma and Berlin and Moscow and to the gates of Tiananmen Square.
None of this could have been known by Lincoln in 1861, nor could it have been envisioned by the thousand townspeople who turned out to watch him leave that gray February day. It was all so uncertain. The Union was coming apart over what today seem the most settled of questions and it had fallen to Lincoln to find a way to resolve the dispute and yet preserve the nation in the process. Lincoln fully understood the enormity and the importance of the task before him and the loneliness that responsibility would bring. Standing on the platform outside the station, he spoke with great emotion and with great affection for his friends and colleagues who had come to see him off to the great and terrible task that lay before him:
"My friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feelings of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter century, and have passed from being a young to an old man. Here my children have been born and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whither ever, I may return, and with a task before me greater than which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and yet remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will be yet well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell."
One can read Lincoln’s words today within a few steps of where they were spoken. They stand inscribed on a large bronze plaque affixed to a vertical slab of granite just outside the tiny station. For Lincoln, the years ahead would be filled with crisis and with tragedy. Along with the enormous pressure of four years of civil war and the deaths of more than 600,000 of his fellow citizens, Lincoln would endure the death of his own son, Willie, a cabinet that mistrusted him, generals who would not fight, an eastern press that publicly called him a gorilla and a wife who became increasingly deranged as the war dragged on. The strain of all this would take its toll, visibly transforming Lincoln’s features in the four years of his presidency as though he had served twenty. Reading that plaque and contemplating the events to come, Lincoln is stripped of history’s mystical and romantic qualities. Outside that tiny station, Lincoln is no longer a giant. He is most intensely and vulnerably human.
Lincoln would, of course, return to Springfield and a different station one day. Another train, more darkly sober than the one that took him to the storm, would return him to his friends to whom he had bid farewell that gray day in February. They would be there to meet him when he returned, to lift his coffin onto the hearse and transport it to the state capital, to the hall where he had warned them of the house dividing. There his friends would say one final goodbye and begin the task that Springfield continues to this day: that of measuring the caliber of the man they had sent away. Lincoln had changed them, as he has changed us, by the words he had spoken in the hall where he defined the nation’s crisis; by the words he had written in the Emancipation Proclamation where he gave the war a moral purpose; and by the words he had spoken at Gettysburg where he gave the nation and, ultimately, the world a new birth of freedom.
Standing outside that tiny brick station, the sweep and immensity of history wash over you. Lincoln’s departure and return and the meaning of the events for his time and for ours that occurred between, all coalesce at the end of a rail line. That tiny station, ignored by Springfield’s late afternoon traffic, is one of the grandest, yet saddest, places I know.
Judge Thomas Dudgeon is an associate judge in the 18th Judicial Circuit Court, having been appointed in 1992 to the judiciary. He presently presides over all probate matters in DuPage County.