Monday, April 07, 2014

From Lincoln to Today

Over seven days of our spring break our family drove for 27 hours in the car and covered more than 1,500 miles. There was not a single fight in the backseat, thanks in part to the "Frozen" soundtrack which our girls LOVED to sing along with. At the top of their lungs. So while the peace was held, parental sanity was not.

One of the stops on our whirlwind spring break tour was Springfield, IL. Wayne had been there as a boy on the only vacation his family ever took. The initial reason for the trip was to see family, but while in Springfield they stopped by the Abraham Lincoln home in Springfield. Since we were heading south to Arkansas from Wisconsin and had to swing through Illinois anyway, this seemed like the perfect diversion.

What a diversion it was!

The most photographed angle of Lincoln's home.

His writing desk where he wrote many speeches.
Our first tour was of the Lincoln home. This is the 3,100 sq ft  home Lincoln the lawyer made for his family, an unheard of size for the time period. He worked late into the night as a lawyer and politician in order to give his family all the things he didn't have as a young boy:  An education.Sufficient food and clothing. Opportunity. Ironically, his eldest boy, Robert, was distant from his father, as his memories are of Abe saddling up to serve on the judicial circuit and never being home. By the time Robert's younger brothers came along, Abe's work was in town and he was home most days, so they were closer with their dad.

We then went to the Abraham Lincoln National Museum in downtown Springfield, where we spent the majority of the day. You don't have to love Abe Lincoln or history to find this museum and its presentation moving. Humbling. Respectful. Pick your adverb, it was an incredible and somber experience.

Except for this part. This part wasn't quite so somber.
I learned some things about old Abe that I didn't know.

1. He was not a popular president. As a matter of fact, between the time he was elected president and he took office 12 states had seceded from the union, they were so infuriated with his being elected. (Hmmm....I remember some politicians threatening to secede if they had to buy into this "Obamacare" business...)

Lincoln's physical features made him a favorite of political satirists.
2. Once in office, his detractors were many. He appointed some of his fiercest political foes to his cabinet. While this helped him understand what others' positions were on slavery, it was also fatiguing to constantly defend himself among his closest "advisors." One of his advisors only agreed to join him in his anti-slavery stance because he thought all the blacks would sail back to Africa after being freed, even though most of them were American-born.

This scene is seared in Marissa's head. It was very impactful and emotional.
3. Only one of his four sons lived to adulthood. Guess which one? Yep, Robert, the oldest who did not have a close relationship with his dad. The tragic deaths of the other three sons from what are now preventable disease took an emotional toll on Mary. Robert had her committed to an insane asylum after her third son's death, which occurred two years after Lincoln was killed. She wrote letters of protest which were printed in the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers. The public embarrassment of having "shut away" his mother when the asylum stated she was well enough to leave forced him to petition for her release just months after her commitment. She and he never reconciled.

Scenes of Willie's illness in the White House and Mary's grief at his passing.
 4. The Emancipation Proclamation was a heavily debated and disputed document by both sides. Abolitionists said it hadn't actually "freed" anyone: blacks in the north were already free by previous legislature; states in the south said they did not have to follow the law of a "foreign" country, so it made no actual difference in the lives of slaves. It wasn't until after his death that the importance of the statement of that document was recognized and respected.

Representing the reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation
5. Lincoln was assassinated just months after the end of the Civil War. John Wilkes Booth was fine with blacks not being slaves, but when he heard the idea that they may become landowners -- or even have the right to vote! -- he was pushed to the edge. Even though his signature was on it, Lincoln did not get to see the 13th Amendment which abolishes slavery become law as not all the lawmakers had signed it at the time of his death.
The devil snuck in the back way.
The presidential portraits of Lincoln -- one for each of the four years he was in office -- showed him visibly aging what seems like decades every passing year from the heavy responsibility of war. He felt the weight of hundreds of thousands of deaths on his shoulders. I do not think he slept.

The wax figures, scenes, documents, lighting, and audio effects made history literally come to life. No one got bored. Okay, so Marissa kept trying to push me along to see the next room because it was SO COOL, but she definitely was not bored.

The White House and Civil War displays were dark. Somber. Moving. It seemed odd to go from there to the children's shop where the girls could try on period clothes and make dinner from the log cabin kitchen. That was our final stop of the day, and the following day we stopped at Lincoln's tomb before heading south on our journey.
Statue of young Lincoln on the left, and President Lincoln on the right. The heavy mantle of war is on his shoulders, weighing him down.

Ironically, we happened to arrive on the first day of it being re-opened after a 4-month closure for remodeling. Visitors could walk through the circular hall, admiring statues along the way, and eventually view Lincoln's sarcophagus. His wife and first three sons are buried in the tomb with him. His eldest and longest-living son is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, due to his stature as a politician and ambassador during his own lifetime. Many times friends tried to convince him to run for the presidency but he always turned it down, saying that there was something "fatalistic" about wanting to become president.

Considering the assassination attempts on those who followed his father in that office, there's something to be said for that. And, he had some really big footsteps to follow. I'm sure he knew that no matter how good a president, he would never measure up to his father. I don't believe many today would.