Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Lincoln Pilgrimage in Springfield

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Lincoln Pilgrimage in Springfield

Article excerpt

`TO this place, and the kindness of these people I owe everything," Abraham Lincoln said in his "farewell address" to the good people of Springfield, Ill., as he departed for Washington to become the 16th president of the United States.

From almost any other politician, this utterance would have been unthinking glibness. But knowing Lincoln's utter frankness and incapacity for dissembling, one can only take him at his word.

Summer travels can afford opportunities for continuing education, or for keeping in touch with kin at a distance, or sometimes both. Springfield was my father's hometown as well as Lincoln's, and this seemed to be the summer for a dual-purpose pilgrimage, to inspect some family sites and to see what could be learned from visiting a great man's hometown.

Certainly Lincoln is ubiquitous in Springfield; everyone has a connection. Dad's grade school, Dubois, was named for a state auditor who early supported Lincoln for president; a cousin is a member of Lincoln's church.

One of the first lessons is, how uncomplicated it all seems. To us living in an era when sheer superfluity of information threatens to wash away whatever actual wisdom may be sprouting within our overloaded heads, the apparent simplicity of Lincoln's intellectual life can be an object of envy: He read a few books very well. When Tocqueville, in his "Democracy in America," wrote of the people on the Western frontier whose libraries consisted of Shakespeare and the Bible, and not much else, but those books well-read and well-worn, he could have had Lincoln in mind.

In New Salem, a small village outside Springfield where Lincoln spent some critical years of his young manhood, there is on display a English grammar book of the type Lincoln once walked miles to acquire. Every American schoolchild has heard this kind of tale. And yet, in the context of that rustic settlement and Lincoln's hunger for learning, his making such a trek suddenly seems quite logical.

To visit his law offices, or the courtrooms where he tried cases, or the hall of the state House of Representatives where he served, or the chamber in the Old State Capitol where he received well-wishers during his presidential campaign (candidates in those days seldom actually went out seeking votes) is to be impressed with how simple things were then, but how completely the concepts of working popular democracy were put into action. …

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