Bryon C. Andreasen. Lincoln’s Springfield. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 115.

Bonnie E. Paull and Richard E. Hart. Lincoln’s Springfield Neighborhood. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2015. Pp. 219.

“Here I have lived for a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man,” Abraham Lincoln declared to the crowd waiting at the Great Western Depot in Springfield, Illinois, to bid him farewell before he departed for Washington, D.C. Lincoln had arrived in Springfield in the spring of 1837 a twenty-­eight-­year-­old, newly-­ minted lawyer with two saddlebags worth of goods and a mountain of debt. He left in 1861 as the fifty-­two-­year-­old president-­elect of the United States. This evolution did not happen in a vacuum. As Lincoln himself acknowledged, Springfield and its citizens played a vital role transforming him into the man he ultimately became: “To this place, and the kindness of its people, I owe everything.”[1]

Little scholarship, however, has been devoted to Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield and its citizens. It goes without saying that in Lincoln studies, Lincoln is the star of the show. The people in Lincoln’s life are significant to the degree that Lincoln knew and interacted with them; the places Lincoln lived are significant because he visited and lived in them. Cognizant of this and its implications for his own legacy even in the nineteenth century, Lincoln contemporary John T. Stuart once remarked, “I believe I am going to live to posterity only as the man who advised Mr. Lincoln to study law and lent him his law books. It is a little humiliating that a man who has served his country in Congress and in his State, should have no further claim to remembrance than that, but I believe it will be so.”[2]

Yet there is an argument to be made for broadening the focus of inquiry to include the people and places of Lincoln’s life. Lincoln, after all, did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus; the context in which he operated influenced his evolution into the man he became. While it is entirely appropriate to argue that Springfield is significant because Lincoln was there, it can also be argued that Lincoln is significant because he was in Springfield. Whatever growth Lincoln experienced between the ages of twenty-­eight and fifty-­two took place in the context of Springfield’s particular geographic location, economic conditions, cultural life, intellectual atmosphere, material environment, and social networks. Learning more about Lincoln’s Springfield is a rich and hitherto underexplored avenue toward a deeper understanding of Springfield’s Lincoln.

Arguably the most substantial scholarly treatment of Lincoln’s Springfield to date is Paul Angle’s Here I Have Lived: History of Lincoln’s Springfield first published in 1935. Camilla Quinn’s 1991 Lincoln’s Springfield in the Civil War added to the understanding of Lincoln’s hometown, albeit after Lincoln himself left. Published within the past two years, however, are two books, targeted to lay audiences, that make significant contributions to our understanding of Lincoln’s Springfield and its citizens.

Lincoln’s Springfield compiles the text of fifty Looking for Lincoln wayside storyboards in Springfield, which author Bryon Andreasen wrote when he was the research historian for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Placed at historic locations throughout the city, these illustrated storyboards are meant to help visitors imagine Lincoln’s physical landscape as he experienced it during his residence in Springfield.

A map at the front of the book indicates the location of each storyboard included in the book. Locations vary from highly significant in Lincoln’s life, like the Globe Tavern, where he and Mary resided during the first year of their marriage, to more pedestrian, such as the location of Lincoln’s carriage maker. Some of the content is not tied specifically to a place at all, such as entries titled “Lincoln’s Hat,” “The Children’s Lincoln,” and “Mary Lincoln’s Family.” Andreasen has purposely excluded entries “for the well-­known sites that still survive from Lincoln’s time and that are open and interpreted for visitors,” such as the Lincoln Home and the Old State Capitol (xi). Also excluded are entries from storyboards that Andreasen did not personally write, such as Edwards Place historic home in Springfield. The book would arguably have been enhanced by including all the sites and storyboards connected with Lincoln in Springfield, but Andreasen’s rationale for exclusion is understood.

This book is directed at general readers seeking to learn more about Lincoln’s life and times through the investigation of specific, Lincoln-­related places. It follows the tradition of earlier explorations of Lincoln’s physical world, most notably Ralph Gary’s Following in Lincoln’s Footsteps (2002), a guidebook brimming with site-­specific insight into Lincoln’s life, and Robert Shaw and Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln Traveled This Way: The America Lincoln Knew (2011) a lyrical and richly photographed journey through landscapes familiar to Lincoln. Like the former, Lincoln’s Springfield may be read as a guidebook, providing information often keyed to a specific street address. Like the latter, it benefits from extensive illustrations and solid academic research.

Lincoln’s Springfield makes a unique contribution to location-­specific Lincoln studies by placing Lincoln’s landscape in the broad context of social and cultural history. Andreasen structured his storyboard entries in a “dual-­story theme: one story focusing on Lincoln the Person, and the other focusing on the Springfield that Lincoln knew” (xi). In the entry on Lincoln’s dentist, for example, Andreasen describes Lincoln’s personal experiences in the dentist’s chair and then explains, “Americans had poor oral hygiene in Lincoln’s era. Rotted teeth and foul breath were common” (14).

This approach has the wonderful effect of humanizing Lincoln. Reading this book, the Lincoln one observes is not so much the future Great Emancipator but an ordinary citizen who played handball in an alley and went to the local carriage maker for routine maintenance on his buggy. The judicious use of historical photographs and images of Lincoln-­era artifacts only adds to the sense that one is getting a peek into Lincoln’s everyday world. While the concise entries and extensive illustration are designed to appeal to the lay reader, the cultural context is useful to more serious scholars.

Richard Hart has been a longtime scholar of Lincoln’s Springfield. As part of his self-­published Spring Creek series, he has produced more than a dozen monographs on facets of Springfield history that have made significant contributions to the understanding of Lincoln’s world. Highlights from this series include Springfield, Illinois’ Nineteenth Century Photographers (2005); Lincoln’s Springfield—The Underground Railroad (2006); Lincoln’s Springfield—The Early African American Population (2008); and Lincoln’s Springfield—Springfield’s Early Schools (2009).

Hart is a tireless and extremely thorough researcher. Each of his books represents a comprehensive compilation of all available primary source material on the topic at hand. They are a scholar’s dream, but they tend to suffer from two drawbacks that limit their accessibility to a wider audience. First, although they comprise a rich trove source material, they tend to lack a narrative framework on which interpretation and analysis are built. Second, because these titles are privately printed in limited quantities, they are not well known or easy to acquire outside Springfield.

In Lincoln’s Springfield Neighborhood, Hart has corrected these two shortcomings. He has partnered with coauthor Bonnie E. Paull, a professor emeritus of English and the humanities, whose gift for writing provides a welcome narrative framework for the wealth of information contained therein. And he has broadened his distribution through publication with the History Press, a popular publisher of local and regional history. The result is a highly readable and accessible volume that sheds important light on the character and composition of Lincoln’s neighborhood during the seventeen years he lived at Eighth and Jackson.

The book paints an appealing picture of how the Lincolns behaved as neighbors. Hart and Paull depict Mary Lincoln as a resourceful housewife who leaned on members of her community for companionship and help with childcare during her husband’s frequent absences. In return, Mary characteristically showed kindness and generosity to her neighbors, such as when she nursed the child of a woman across the street who was ill. Lincoln, for his part, balanced personal friendships with partisanship among his neighbors, many of whom were ardent Democrats.

One of the most important insights offered by Lincoln’s Springfield Neighborhood is just how ethnographically and economically diverse the Lincoln’s neighborhood was; composed of “artisans, clerks, farmers, shopkeepers, government servants, and purveyors of transport, of French, German, Irish, Portuguese, and African American ethnicity” (36). Within a three-­block radius of the Lincolns’ home, Hart and Paull report, were twelve Irish, nineteen German, and four African American families, as well as thirty-­three Irish, nine German, three Portuguese, and three African American domestic servants living with other families. While in Springfield, Lincoln had to look no farther than his own dooryard to acquaint himself with the joys and trials experienced by a variety of people of all ages, ethnicities, and occupations. Hart argues that this democratic and integrated environment “nurtured the tolerance and compassion Lincoln so frequently displayed as President” (20).

By turning their scholarly attention to the people who surrounded Lincoln in his everyday life, Hart and Paull have pushed the field of Lincoln studies in an exciting new direction. Every generation or so, Lincoln scholars like to ask themselves whether the potential for scholarship on Lincoln has been exhausted. Clyde C. Walton’s point about the excruciating amount of detail known about Lincoln’s day-­to-­day activities is well taken.[3] It is time to expand Lincoln studies beyond the narrow focus of the man and his activities to encompass a more thorough examination of the material, geographical, social, and cultural landscape in which he lived. Andreasen’s and Paull and Hart’s works have taken important steps down this path; following them is sure to yield exciting new insights into Lincoln and his world.

    1. “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois,” February 11, 1861, Roy P. Basler et al, eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 4:190.return to text

    2. Caroline Owsley Brown, “Springfield Society before the Civil War,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 15, no. 1/2 (Apr.–July, 1922), 490.return to text

    3. James G. Randall, “Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?” American Historical Review 41 (January 1936): 270–94; Clyde C. Walton, “An Agonizing Reappraisal: ‘Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?,’” in Lincoln Images: Augustana College Centennial Essays, edited by O. Fritiof Ander (Rock Island, Ill.: Augustana College Library, 1960), 99–105.return to text