Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 29th, 2017, continued
After my visit to the Old State House, I notice one of those Looking for Lincoln historical placards on a building to my left as I walk towards my next destination. It’s an attractive three-story red and yellow brick Italianate building from the later 1800’s, too late to be from Lincoln’s time. I draw near and read the placard and the small house-shaped bronze plaque near it.
This building stands at the southeast corner of 6th and Adams, on the former site of the American House Hotel. It was the largest hotel in Illinois, admired for its huge size and praised for its lavish, exotic, ‘Turkish’ interior design. Despite its reputation and the fact that it was the hotel of choice for dignitaries and the better-off, there doesn’t seem to be any easy-to-find photos of it. There’s one on the placard of the Old State House with the plain white walls of the three-story, rather plain Hotel in the distance, but that’s about it. I can find no photos of its splendiferous interior either. It stood here from 1838-1870, a little too long ago for me to find a postcard image of it, my tried and true source type for images of historic buildings.
The American House Hotel was built by Captain Elijah Iles (who was also buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery), who also had the distinction of being the owner of the oldest house that still stands in Springfield and of being Abraham Lincoln’s commander in the Black Hawk War. Lincoln was also elected captain in that war for a time, of which he was very proud, but the lanky 23-year old youth never saw combat. He did, however, help to bury some of the men who did and died for it. There’s a monument at the site of the Battle of Stillman’s Run that memorializes the men who died and that particular man who helped bury them. I find the words on the monument rather interesting: ‘The presence of the soldier, statesman, martyr Abraham Lincoln assisting in the burial of these honored dead has made this spot more sacred.’ Lincoln himself said in his address at the battlefield of Gettysburg ‘…We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.’ So if Lincoln saw the words on this monument, he would likely look at them askance. But as the Stillman Run’s monument says, Lincoln is himself among the slain, slain in another struggle perhaps, but no less a patriotic one. So it seems he does qualify as a consecrator of sacred ground, too, according to the terms he laid out in the Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln may have visited the American House Hotel on at least two occasions, though there’s no evidence that I could find, again, besides local lore repeated in blogs and in the Looking for Lincoln book and placard. One purported occasion was the November 1838 grand opening dinner, which served 200 people. The other was the time that former president Martin Van Buren came to Springfield for a visit in June of 1842. Van Buren was on tour seeking to revive his political career. According to that legend, Lincoln was called upon to help welcome and entertain Van Buren while he was visiting his cousin in the vicinity of nearby Rochester, Illinois. He spent a day there tickling Van Buren and company’s ribs with his jokes and anecdotes. (See what I did there? That’s my own little joke, leaving the sentence constructed that way so that you’re left with the weird mental image of Van Buren being tickled.) The next day, the tradition goes, Lincoln escorted him to the Hotel.
I turn towards the destination I was initially headed for: the Tinsley Building, now called the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office State Historic Site, right across the street. This large, handsome Greek-Revival red brick building was built in 1840-1841 at the southwest corner of 6th and Adams Streets. S.M. Tinsley & Co’s retail business occupied part of the two lower floors, which were also occupied by the U.S. Post Office (1st floor) and the U.S. Federal Court (2nd floor). The third floor was rented out as offices.
When this mixed-use building was only about three years old, Lincoln and his senior law partner Stephen T. Logan moved their successful practice to the grander accommodations in the Tinsley Building’s large third-floor front office. Their joint practice here only lasted from the summer of 1843 to early winter of 1844, when Logan opted to practice with his son instead. Lincoln kept the large front office while the Logans moved to another in the same building, and he offered a partnership to William H. Herndon, a relatively inexperienced but intelligent, studious young lawyer. Herndon jumped at the chance since by this time Lincoln was very well known and respected. In fact, many were surprised at Lincoln’s choice: at this point, Lincoln could have had his pick of many distinguished local lawyers. But Lincoln wanted to be the senior partner this time. As Herndon and many others described him, Lincoln had great confidence in his own abilities and his own unique way of doing things. So it’s no surprise in that regard that Lincoln preferred to take the lead role this time around.
Lincoln and Herndon knew each other for a long time. Herndon’s father Abner G. Herndon was one of the Long Nine, the 1836-37 Illinois State Legislature which was responsible for moving the state capital to Springfield. Lincoln was twenty-seven, young Herndon seventeen when Lincoln became one of his father’s co-legislators. After the legislature adjourned that spring, Lincoln moved to Springfield on April 15th, 1837, and lived for a time in Joshua Speed’s room over his store. Herndon roomed with them for a time, too, and worked for Speed as a clerk. While Lincoln was serving in the legislature, he was also teaching himself law and had obtained his license the previous fall. Lincoln came to Springfield to establish a practice and inquired about the cost of a bed, a mattress, and their accouterments. He couldn’t afford the named priced so Speed offered to let him share his bed and room upstairs since Lincoln didn’t have a home yet either. The awkward, unrefined, autodidact, perennially broke Lincoln and the handsome, cultivated, well-educated son of wealthy parents Speed became very close friends. I’ll return to that story soon.
Herndon and Lincoln also became very good friends, Lincoln with a fatherly affection, Herndon admiringly. Their partnership was successful and harmonious, despite the fact that neither of them were orderly with their paperwork or tidy in their office. Perhaps their harmoniousness was enhanced by the fact that Lincoln was often away ‘riding the circuit.’ Most practitioners of law, in order to make a sufficient living, found it necessary to travel throughout their judicial district to argue and hear local cases. Lincoln was the public face of Lincoln & Herndon, meeting with clients, arguing their cases in court, and writing the most important legal documents. Herndon did the research, wrote the minor documents, ran the errands, and did whatever other odd tasks which arose. Lincoln, however, insisted on dividing all of the practice’s income equally between the two of them.
Their Tinsley building office was somewhat sparsely furnished, the tables covered with green oilcloth and strewn with papers and books, mostly Herndon’s. Lincoln, famously, frequently had his nose buried in a book when he was a boy. According to Herndon and to my surprise, however, Lincoln read far less often in his adulthood. In fact, wrote Herndon, ‘Lincoln… read less and thought more than any man in his sphere in America.’ What Lincoln did read, however, he remembered. It seems, then, that Lincoln’s considerable ability was based at least as much as what he did with what he read than with the amount. He enriched and expanded the knowledge gained from what he did read with the greater amount of time he spent in thinking, in writing, and in conversation.
I zigzag southwest a couple of blocks to the First Presbyterian Church at 321 S. Seventh St at E. Capitol Ave. The Lincolns attended services at First Presbyterian from about 1850 to 1860, when the Lincolns left for Washington, D.C. But there are two details to note. One, they never attended services at this exact church, since it was built two years after Mary died, but this church does contain and preserve their original pew from the old location. Two, though Mary formally joined the congregation out of enthusiasm for its new minister, Reverend Dr. James Smith, Abraham never did. Lincoln paid the yearly rent for the pew, attended at times with his family, and became good friends with Smith, but he did not join.
Lincoln’s religiosity has been a subject of much debate during his lifetime and up to the present day. Atheists, agnostics, and deists often emphasize the strong skepticism he evinced during his younger years and his admiration for Thomas Paine, who was notorious for his Age of Reason attack on Christianity and all organized religion. Lincoln rarely alluded to Christ in word or in writing, or to God in any denominational sense, and he was unwilling to join any church. In fact, he never did. His friend, law partner, and later biographer Herndon also emphasized Lincoln’s freethinking ways, to the dismay and anger of many of his friends, family, and supporters. On the other hand, Christians often emphasize his frequent Biblical quotations, the fact that he did go to church with his family somewhat regularly when his schedule allowed, his regular allusions to God in letters and especially in public speeches, and his frequent Biblical quotes. He also seemed to become much more religiously inclined in his later years.
So each of these groups likes to claim the great Lincoln as one of their own, each minimizing evidence from the other side of the argument or dismissing it altogether. The truth is, Lincoln was very private about his religious beliefs. I think this is because one, he was a canny and ambitious politician in a religious age, so he was loath to make overt statements of unorthodoxy or of strict adherence to one particular creed and thus hurt his chances of election to public office; second, though he did not ascribe to any particular creed, he often had feelings that were generally considered religious and over the years, he increasingly felt the need for religious comfort and became convinced of the truth of some religious arguments; and third, he was a private man about his inner life generally, and it’s clear he believed that matters of conscience and belief belonged to this category. Because he was private about his religious convictions, because he was a complex and subtle thinker, and because his views changed over time, I think it’s a mistake to try and fix Lincoln in any category of belief, with the possible exception of ‘freethinker.’ Though ‘freethinker’ has connotations of hostility to religion to some, the term’s literal meaning, and the way it was used more then, most closely reflects what we do know about Lincoln’s beliefs, and can include the ways this changed over time. Freethinker can encompass Lincoln’s early skepticism, his religious questioning, and his later status as a religious believer who nevertheless refused to align himself with any system of religious orthodoxy as a matter of principle.
In his published eulogy for Lincoln, U.S. Representative Henry Champion Deming wrote: ‘[Lincoln] said, he had never united himself to any church, because he found difficulty in giving his assent, without mental reservation, to the long complicated statements of Christian doctrine, which characterize their Articles of belief and Confessions of Faith. “When any church,” he continued, “will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification for membership the Saviour’s condensed statement of the substance of both law and Gospel, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself, that church I will join with all my heart and all my soul.”‘ Presumably, since there was no such established church which had a formal membership, he never joined one.
I zigzag a little farther southeast to a particularly significant site to get the lay of the land, so to speak. It’s early evening and open hours are ended, so I’ll be returning tomorrow for a proper visit. I’ll wait to tell you all about it in that account.
I head northwest, this time zigzagging a little haphazardly, to E Adams between 3rd and 4th Sts. On the north side of E Adams, at 315 where a parking lot is now, is the former site of the Globe Tavern. This is the first place the newlywed Lincolns lived in Springfield. They moved in on their wedding night on November 4th, 1842, and lived there until May 2nd, 1844. Their first son, Robert, was born here almost exactly nine months after their wedding, on August 1st, 1843.
It was a very nice tavern, and contrary to the common view that these accommodations would have been too humble for Mary Todd’s accustomed lifestyle, it was the first place that many newlyweds in her family stayed. According to the journal article ‘The Lincoln’s Globe Tavern’ by James T. Hickey and his co-authors,
In starting their married life at the Globe Tavern, the Lincolns were in fact following a precedent set by other members of Mary Lincoln’s family. John Todd Stuart, her cousin and Lincoln’s first law partner, had taken his bride there in November, 1837; Dr. William S. Wallace and Mary’s sister Frances also lived there after their marriage, on May 21st, 1839. The Wallaces stayed there more than three years, and it was into their recently vacated rooms that the Lincolns moved. These rooms were in the addition that fronted on Adams Street.
I head next to the Myers Building at the southwest corner of E Washington and S 5th Streets. In April 1837, Lincoln moved to Springfield. The legislative session had ended and Lincoln was ready to get going on practicing law, for which he’d been preparing the last two and a half years. He arrived here at A.Y. Ellis & Co’s store to inquire about the cost of a bed and its trappings. The clerk he found there ready to help him was not his old New Salem friend Ellis he had come to see, it was Ellis’ business partner, Joshua Fry Speed. Speed must have seen something he liked in Lincoln, and besides, there was a housing shortage in Springfield. So he offered to let Lincoln share his bed and his room upstairs. Lincoln accepted with alacrity and settled right in, and Lincoln and Speed became the closest of friends over the next almost-four years until Speed moved back to his native Kentucky in January of 1841. For a while, these two close friends stayed in contact, especially about their respective uncertain love lives, and then they mostly fell out of touch until Lincoln became the Republican Presidential nominee. Speed, the son of slaveowners and a conservative Louisville Democrat, wrote a warm letter of congratulations to Lincoln when he was elected President, and placed himself firmly on the side of his dear old friend. He worked with Lincoln and others to make sure that Kentucky, a border state split between Union and pro-slavery factions, was not lost to the Confederacy.
Louisville, by the way, was the native town of my grandfather, within whom that old battle was still raging. Though I had never seen it manifested in the way he interacted with people, I had always been convinced of his entrenched and intractable racism because of his political and social views. I was convinced, that is, until I beheld the tenderness and affection with which he held and regarded his black great-grandson, just as he did with all the other kids in our large extended family. That’s when I became convinced that the racism I had perceived for so long was an ingrained habit, a cultural residue that could not overcome his natural kindliness and deep sense of family. I like to think that it was just so with Lincoln, except that for him, his ascendency to the Presidency made the entire nation, in a very important sense, his family, black, white, and all.
To be continued…
Sources and inspiration:
Andreasen, Bryon C. Looking for Lincoln in Illinois: Lincoln’s Springfield. Southern Illinois University Press, 2015
Bakke, Dave. ‘Springfield Man [Randy von Liski] Focuses Photo Hobby on Classic Barbershops.’ The State Journal-Register, Oct 15, 2010
Brink, McCormick & Co. ‘Springfield Township, Springfield City.‘ from Atlas of Sangamon County, 1874.
Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003
‘Central Springfield Historic District‘ National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Prepared by Nicholas P. Kalogeresis for the National Park Service.
Deming, Henry Champion. ‘Eulogy of Abraham Lincoln: before the General Assembly of Connecticut, at Allyn Hall, Hartford, Thursday, June 8th, 1865.’ Hartford: A.N. Clark & Co. State Printers, 1985
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995
‘Elijah Iles‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
Hart, Dick. ‘Lincoln’s Springfield: Hotels and Taverns.’ Lincoln’s Springfield blog
Havlik, Robert J. ‘Abraham Lincoln and the Reverend Dr. James Smith: Lincoln’s Presbyterian Experience in Springfield.‘ Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) Vol. 92, No. 3, A Lincoln Issue (Autumn, 1999), pp. 222-237
Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889
History of Sangamon County, Illinois; Together with Sketches of its Cities, Villages and Townships … Portraits of Prominent Persons, and Biographies of Representative Citizens. Chicago: Interstate Publishing Co., 1881
Illinois, Springfield: Tinsley Building. Excerpts from newspapers and other sources compiled by the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1993
‘Joshua Fry Speed: Lincoln’s Confidential Agent in Kentucky.‘ The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 52, No. 179 (April, 1954), pp. 99-110
Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.
‘The Lincolns’ Globe Tavern: A Study in Tracing the History of a Nineteenth-Century Building‘, by James T. Hickey, George W. Spotswood, C. G. Saunders and Sarah Beck, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) Vol. 56, No. 4 (Winter, 1963), pp. 629-653
Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois. Website, National Park Service
Looking for Lincoln: various historical/informational placards throughout the Springfield, Illinois and surrounding areas about the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln at their associated sites
‘Martin Van Buren meets Abraham Lincoln.‘ SangamonLink: History of Sangamon County, Illinois, Apr 13, 2013
Temple, Wayne C. ‘Herndon on Lincoln: An Unknown Interview with a List of Books in the Lincoln & Herndon Law Office.‘ Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) Vol. 98, No. 1/2 (Spring – Summer, 2005), pp. 34-50
von Liski, Randy. ‘Commercial Building (American House hotel site), 200 S. 6th Street, Springfield, Illinois.‘ My Old Postcards Flickr page