I flew into Springfield, Illinois for the first time last Monday. The first thing you notice is that it is a very small airport; in fact, the smallest that I remember ever flying into. Bozeman, Montana, Fairbanks, Alaska and Tallahassee, Florida are all much more significant. This place was tiny. But then, Springfield is a city of about 110,000 people today, and the capital of Illinois.
I spent a little time scouting around town. It’s a town of urban sprawl, with a small historic area, a fairly small downtown and urban sprawl on a noticeable scale around it. I saw the Old State Capitol, recently notable because it was on its steps that Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency in February 2007. I saw the current State Capitol, a much larger complex, and I could not help but think of the notoriety of Rod Blagojevich, the deposed former governor of Illinois.
But more than anything else, Springfield is the “Land of Lincoln.” Certainly exacerbated by the Lincoln bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of his birth in February 1809, Lincoln is everywhere in this city. Car dealerships, libraries, schools, parks, buildings and businesses are named after the man who is widely and just about unanimously thought of as our single greatest president.
I parked my car and walked to 8th Street and Jefferson. On the northeast corner stands Lincoln’s family home, a medium-sized Victorian house that looks today exactly the way it looked in the photographs taken in the 1850ies. The house is close to the street corner on both sides, so close, you can almost touch it. It was late afternoon, so I did not get a tour. There was nobody around. I walked down 8th Street toward Edwards Avenue, past the other houses, all kept up nicely, and past a few empty lots. Every house, every lot has a story. A friend, a political ally and occasionally a rival of Lincoln lived there. I could almost smell the horses, hear the voices of children playing and pick up the cooking aromas coming out of the homes. It was as if old Abe was going to appear at his door and walk across the street to greet me any minute.
It was striking how alone I was, here on this cold February afternoon. The street, just a couple of blocks only, is now maintained by the National Park system. The street is kept in gravel, the sidewalks made out of planks, the fences maintained just the way they were back then. Across the street from Lincoln’s house there are two lots that he bought for $300, and later he sold one of them to a woman for $125. My hotel room that night cost $125. I took deep breaths as I ambled about, taking in the surroundings, reading all the signs. If the man who lived in that house had not become the president of the United States, this block would be another block of ramshackle Victorian houses, just like those down on 8th and Edwards, right across the street. There was a dark grey home there, with a “For Sale by Owner” sign in the window, bikes chained to a decrepit porch railing, gutters hanging, weeds in the yard, all in bad need of a new coat of paint. I wondered who lived there when Lincoln was up the street.
It is a modest little world now, and I am sure it was a modest world then, when Abraham Lincoln readied himself to take this country through one of its most serious crises in history. Lincoln was 52 years old in 1861 when he took the presidency. I was 52, standing in front of his house in 2009.
I walked back to my car, and decided it’s time to read a Lincoln biography. It has meaning now.