THE FIRST TIME I EVER VISITED LINCOLN'S HOMETOWN of Springfield, Illinois, 25 years ago, I was a green young historian with just a few magazine articles under my belt--not yet a single book to my credit. But apparently I had garnered enough of a reputation in the field of Lincoln art (it helped a great deal that no one else was writing on the subject) to earn an invitation to address a scholarly conference there on the town's high holy day: Lincoln's Birthday.
So, with my wife and two young daughters in tow--the older, born on February 11, sentenced to spending the first of many birthdays on the road celebrating Lincoln's, not hers--we braved the deep snow and nerve-numbing cold to visit his well-preserved house, his simple law office, the tiny railroad depot where he departed town for the Presidency, and the reconstructed state capitol where he delivered his "House Divided" address in 1858 and where, just seven years later, a national hero, he was brought home to lie in state.
Now here I was, overcome with emotion to be standing on the same platform where Lincoln had all but predicted the breakup of the Union, and where his remains had rested after he gave his life to repair it. As hundreds of enthusiasts looked on, I grasped for words grand enough to express these lofty thoughts, when from the "ladies'" balcony above came the husky voice of my younger daughter, then just 18 months old, breaking through the hush with piercing cries of: "Daddy! Daddy!" The audience erupted in laughter. And so did I. That was my introduction to Springfield.
Later that day, I learned that in an even less august moment, Lincoln had once leaped from a window in the capitol building in the nearby village of Vandalia, the state's previous seat, to escape the locked chamber and avoid being counted in a legislative quorum. History is not all solemnity--especially in the hurly-burly world Lincoln occupied; and came to dominate, in the central Illinois of the 1840s and 1850s, all of it still magically on view in town after town where he lived, spoke, visited, practiced law, and grew from tentative professional to national leader.
I have been back to Springfield perhaps two dozen times since: to do research, on assignment to write about the city, to give speeches, and to attend board meetings. Once I brought my friend the actor Sam Waterston to receive an award there from the Abraham Lincoln Association, and heard him brilliantly recite--no catcalls from the galleries that day!--the moving words from Lincoln's farewell address: "I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return." Lincoln never did, but his admirers have, in great numbers, ever since. Now they have even more reason to do so: a mammoth new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum that will surely transform the town into the undisputed national center for the study and appreciation of our sixteenth, and most revered, Chief Executive.
It was on April 15, 1837, that a "melancholy" and "friendless" young lawyer-politician, carrying all of his meager possessions in a pair of worn saddlebags, rode into Springfield on a borrowed horse, bravely resolved to start a new life in Illinois's bustling new state capital.
Within hours he had found a place to board, flung his bags into a room above his new roommate's store, and clambered down the staircase to report exuberantly, "Well ... I'm moved!"
To call this the midpoint of Lincoln's extraordinary life would be chillingly accurate. Not only did it mark his dramatic passage from hardscrabble frontier life to the heady center of state government; what was more, Lincoln was also 28 years old at the time, and had precisely 28 years to live before an assassin's bullet claimed him.
"Here I have lived a quarter of a century and have passed from a young to an old man," he would nostalgically conclude on a misty winter morning in 1861, standing on the rear platform of the train poised to take him off toward Washington, the Presidency, and the Civil War. …