Editor’s note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com.
Abraham Lincoln may not have been born in Illinois but he clearly is among the state’s favorite sons.
Lincoln came into the world on Feb. 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Kentucky, but eventually spent several decades living in Illinois, and departed for the presidency as a resident of Springfield. He was a shopkeeper, postmaster, lawyer, and state and federal legislator before being elected president in 1860.
He served as the nation’s 16th president from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. The bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth took one of the nation’s greatest presidents from its citizens, but could not diminish his accomplishments – notably the abolishment of slavery – that have defined his legacy.
Planting roots in Illinois
Lincoln had a humble beginning. The second child and first son of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, he was born in a one-room log cabin. He did not have the benefit of consistent formal schooling, as he often worked to help support his family during his childhood in Kentucky and then Indiana.
The family moved to Illinois in 1830 and Lincoln wound up in New Salem working as postmaster and shopkeeper. He became involved in local politics, winning a seat in the state legislature in 1834. He taught himself law and passed the bar in 1836; in 1846 he won a seat to the U.S. House of Representatives.
He married Mary Todd in November 1842 and they had four sons, although only the eldest, Robert Todd, survived into adulthood. The Greek Revival house the family lived in for 17 years still sits in Springfield today, with its homestead a popular tourist attraction.
Lincoln’s biggest accomplishment was the abolishment of slavery, an issue he began speaking out against as a young adult. His first statement on the issue is said to have been March 3, 1837, when he said “the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy” during a speech at the state Legislature when it was in Vandalia.
It was an issue he would discuss often during his political career. When accepting the Republican nomination in June 1858 during a convention in Springfield to be the party’s candidate for U.S. Senate, Lincoln gave his “A house divided against itself cannot stand” speech, and it was one of the main issues discussed during his failed bid for the Senate, as during the 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas the future president forcefully spoke out against slavery.
Although he lost the race for Senate that year, those seven debates gave him the national prominence he needed to win the presidency.
Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States in November 1860 and took office in March.
Much of his time as president was spent on the issue of slavery. The divide between the North and South as to whether it should be allowed led to the Civil War, which started a month after he took office.
His Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Confederate states, went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, while the war still raged.
And it was on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Civil War that Lincoln delivered perhaps the most important speech in American history: The Gettysburg Address.
Given on Nov. 19, 1863, it is known for Lincoln’s succinct summary of the purpose of the United States: That the country was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln was elected to a second term as the war raged on, but his death came shortly after his second inauguration and just as the Civil War was coming to end. He was shot April 14, 1865, while watching “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. It was Good Friday, just 5 days after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Popular actor John Wilkes Booth, a sympathizer with the Confederacy, shot the president point-blank in the back of his head.
News of Lincoln’s death arrived in Springfield via telegraph at 3 a.m. the next day, to the Daily State Journal’s newsroom. “The president was shot in a theater tonight and is probably mortally wounded,” read the dispatch.
Moments later another followed: “The president is not expected to live through the night. ... Secretary (of State William) Seward was also assassinated. No arteries were cut. Particulars soon.”
The second part of that telegraph, of course, was inaccurate about Seward’s fate. Additional dispatches painted the chaos inside Ford’s Theater, including the sound of a pistol, a man waving a dagger leaping from the president’s box, the screams of Mrs. Lincoln, and finally, the heartbreaking confirmation that the president had died.
A train carried his body throughout the country for nearly 2 weeks, allowing people to grieve their loss. On May 3, crowds descended upon Springfield as the train carrying Lincoln pulled into town for the president’s burial.
“Today we lay him reverently to rest amid the scenes he loved so well,” the Journal wrote the next day. “Millions will drop a tear to his memory, and future generations will make a pilgrimage to his tomb. Peace to his ashes.”
Pilgrimages continue to the 16th president’s tomb to this day, with many visitors rubbing the nose of the bronze head of Lincoln that sits in front of the entrance to the tomb. The words uttered by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton upon Lincoln’s passing have indeed come true: “Now he belongs to the ages.”
LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS
Among the many places in Illinois where people can learn more about the nation’s 16th president are:
• The Sterling Rock Falls Histrical Society's Lincoln-Manahan Home Museum and Learning Center, 607 E. Third St. in Sterling, where Lincoln spent the night on July 18, 1856. He was in town to speak in support of John Fremont, the first Republican candidate for president. The fully restored brick house then was the home of Whiteside County Sheriff William Manahan. srfhs.com/about-us/lincoln-manahan-home-museum
• Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, illinois.gov/alplm
• Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, nps.gov/liho
• Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, shawurl.com/387y
• Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site, lincolnlogcabin.org
– State Journal-Register photo editor Rich Saal contributed to this report.
Kate Schott is the editorial engagement editor at The State Journal-Register in Springfield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org