If you’ve seen Oscar-nominated biopic Lincoln
– or if you’re getting ready to see it in advance of the Academy Awards later this month – you might be wondering about the events in Lincoln’s life that led up to those fateful last months, when he worked to ensure passage of the 13th Amendment officially outlawing slavery in the United States. What brought this great man to Washington, so determined to see freedom and equality come to pass?
Most of Lincoln’s adult life was spent in Illinois, and it was there that his views and vision were shaped. Illinois was where he became excited about politics, where he built the reputation as a fiery freedom-fighter that would carry him to the White House. And Illinoisans (including the Legacy.com team, most of whom are based in the Chicago area) are proud of the man who was one of our state’s most famous residents.
Lincoln Memorial image by Flickr Creative Commons/chadh
Many towns in Illinois have Abraham Lincoln stories, whether they’re places he lived or worked or just spent a significant moment. If you ever visit Illinois, you can spend many days touring sites important to our nation’s 16th president. And we’re here to help. As the U.S. remembers Lincoln’s birthday, we’ve put together a mini road trip that shines the spotlight on a few of the towns that boast some of the most important Abe Lincoln history. We start in the place where Lincoln’s Illinois journey began…
1. Decatur. When Abraham Lincoln was 21, he and his family left Indiana to escape an epidemic ravaging that state. Moving west, they ended up in Decatur, which is about as close to the exact middle of Illinois as you can get. The spot where they camped on their first night in the area is now Decatur’s Lincoln Square – and Lincoln returned to that spot later in the same year to give his first-ever political speech, a plea to improve the Sangamon River’s navigability. It was an impromptu speech, delivered in response to others being given that day by local politicians, but containing all the passion that would make him a leader in the years to come. Eyewitness accounts recall that Lincoln, dressed in homespun clothes and barefooted, energized listeners with his talk of the future of Illinois.
2. New Salem. In 1831, Abraham Lincoln struck out on his own and moved about 50 miles west, to New Salem. He remained here for six years, working as a boatman, a shopkeeper, postmaster and more, as well as fighting in the Black Hawk War. It was here in New Salem that Lincoln first ran for political office, winning election to the state legislature in 1834. But perhaps more important in this time period were several business trips Lincoln took to New Orleans, navigating a flatboat down the Mississippi River. His experiences in the true South opened his eyes to the realities of slavery that were much less evident in his native Midwest. After these trips, Lincoln’s political focus began to sharpen around the issue of slavery, starting the steady march toward his eventual Emancipation Proclamation.
3. Springfield. No Abe Lincoln sightseeing tour would be complete without a stop in Springfield, the Illinois state capitol and the place where Lincoln’s legal career began. He was elected to the state legislature in 1834, but he didn’t move to Springfield until 1836, when he was admitted to the bar (and in fact, Springfield didn’t become the state capitol until 1839 – a designation that owes thanks in part to Lincoln’s lobbying). It was in Springfield that Lincoln made a name for himself as a lawyer, met his future wife Mary Todd, and rose as a politician. It’s hard to throw a rock in Springfield without hitting a place associated with Lincoln (though we hope anyone following our road trip will avoid throwing rocks at historical sites). You can see his home and his law office, tour the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, opened in 2005. You can stand on the platform at the depot where his train departed for Washington after he won the presidential election in 1860, as well as visit the tomb where he was laid to rest after being assassinated a few years later. But just because Lincoln’s Illinois journey – and life journey – ended in Springfield doesn’t mean ours has to stop there. So many other towns in Illinois boast a bit of Lincoln history. One of the most prominent is just 70 miles northeast of Springfield.
4. Bloomington. It was here in Bloomington, at a downtown building that has since been demolished, that Lincoln delivered his famous “lost speech” of 1856. Why was the speech lost? According to legend, Lincoln’s words were so powerful and his oratory so captivating that all the reporters lay down their pencils and forgot to take notes, so mesmerized were they by the future president’s speech. Another theory holds that transcripts of the speech were deliberately destroyed because its anti-slavery message was feared to be too provocative. Snippets survived in attendee’s memories, including one very familiar phrase: “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Used two years later in the speech Lincoln gave to accept his party’s nomination for senator, the phrase was, reportedly, first uttered at the corner of East and Front streets in Bloomington.
5. Peoria. Our travels next take us 40 miles northwest to Peoria and back in time two years to 1854. Established in 1691, Peoria holds the distinction of being the oldest European settlement in Illinois. It was 163 years later that Abraham Lincoln stood on the city’s courthouse steps and delivered a three-hour long, impassioned speech arguing against the extension of slavery. The “Peoria Speech” electrified its audience and would shape the platform of the newly formed Republican Party. It was one of the key events that started Lincoln’s trajectory toward the presidency and the abolition of slavery.
6. Galesburg. Continuing 50 miles west to railroad hub – and Underground Railroad stop – Galesburg, we reach one of the sites of the seven legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates. Taking place in 1858, the debates were part of the Senate race between Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas. Once again, Lincoln spoke eloquently and passionately against slavery, and this time, the ears of a nation listened. Transcripts of the debates were sent to newspapers around the country and printed in full as the populace struggled with the issues that would soon drive the U.S. into civil war. Our road trip doesn’t stop at all seven debate sites, but you can visit them yourself if you take side trips to Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Quincy and Alton. And before you get back on the road for our next stop, don’t forget to visit the Old Main building at Galesburg’s Knox College – the site of that city’s Lincoln-Douglas debate is still in use today.
7. Rock Island. Another 50 miles north sits Mississippi River town Rock Island, home of the first railroad bridge constructed across that wide river. The bridge was built in 1856, and two weeks later, the steamboat Effie Afton accidentally (maybe) rammed it and set it on fire. A hotly contested court case ensued, with none other than Abraham Lincoln arguing for the railroad. He was successful – the courts found in favor of the railroad (though the bridge wasn’t rebuilt for another 40 years). It was a small event in Lincoln’s life, but one that helped build the reputation as a fine legal thinker that would boost his political career.
8. Chicago. Our journey winds to a close in Legacy.com’s hometown. Chicago was already Illinois’ biggest city in Lincoln’s day, and its size and influence meant that a prominent lawyer and politician such as himself would visit often. In fact, Lincoln was urged to move to Chicago by a friend and fellow lawyer, who wanted to open a practice with him. Lincoln declined, but returned to Chicago many times over the years, most notably in 1860 for the Republican National Convention. It was there that he became his party’s presidential nominee, battling opposition from more radical Republicans who feared, ironically, that his platform on slavery was too moderate. Had the early favorite William Seward won, would the Emancipation Proclamation have been made, and slavery abolished? We’ll never know, and we can only be grateful that it was Lincoln who carried the day at that Chicago convention.
That brings our road trip to an end – we’re back home in Chicago and we need to get back to work. But for those who are fascinated with the history of one of our nation’s greatest leaders, we’ve only scratched the surface. Illinois was Abraham Lincoln’s home for most of his adult life, and our state is so full of spots he visited – and stories of his sharpening vision toward a unified nation full of free and equal people – that the full road trip map would look like a spider web. Maybe one day you’ll visit the Land of Lincoln and find out for yourself.
Written by Linnea Crowther