Abraham Lincoln: Before the White House

The list of things that most Americans can agree on is likely pretty short. On that list would surely be the fact that Abraham Lincoln was a great President (though I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few dissenters). But that’s the historical perspective, and does not necessarily reflect feelings about the man at the time.

In our attempt to find a deeper appreciation of the 16th President and to discover the man before his election to the land’s highest office, we visited Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln moved to Springfield in 1837. His future wife, Mary Todd, in 1839. Their courtship was a stormy one, in part due to the fact that Mary’s family did not approve of the union. Still, in 1842 they were married.

Their first year they lived in a boarding house, but after the birth of their first son, Robert Todd Lincoln, they found the conditions at the house too crowded and loud. They moved first into a 3 room cabin, and then finally into what is now the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. This is not the log cabin of Lincoln’s youth (for that you’d have to visit the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, Indiana); but instead, the only home he owned as an adult. The home he purchased with Mary Todd Lincoln.

During their time there, Lincoln’s legal career would thrive, they would have more children (and lose their second-born Edward just shy of his 4th birthday), and Lincoln would eventually be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. It was the home they planned to return to at the end of his Presidency; though Lincoln’s own words in his farewell address seem eerily prophetic in retrospect.

“Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return…”

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The family would never return to the home, and Robert (the only of the four Lincoln children to live to adulthood), would eventually donate the home to the State of Illinois in 1887 (22 years after his father’s assassination). Later, in 1972, it was given to the United States Government and became a National Park Service Historic Site. In the “fun facts” section of the home’s website, it mentions that, “President Richard Nixon signed the legislation authorizing the establishment of the Lincoln Home as a National Historic Site at the Old State Capitol, using the same desk Lincoln used to write his first inaugural address.”

We arrived to the site pretty late in the afternoon and were lucky to get onto one of the last tours of the day. It was raining pretty hard as we headed from the Visitor’s Center down to the home, but the walk itself is a bit like going back in time. The surrounding neighborhood has been restored to recreate the world as it was when the Lincolns lived there. And as you can see from the photo above (which was taken after our tour when the rain had subsided) there are brick sidewalks and the roads are an unpaved, red clay.

Tours of old homes can often seem much the same – old rooms, old furniture, restored items, original items – unless you are enamored with the furnishings of a particular time period, it can be a bit of a mixed bag. In this case, in anticipation of their move to Washington, the Lincoln’s had rented out the house, selling the majority of their furniture, and putting aside only a few pieces for their return. When most of the furnishings aren’t original it becomes the stories and the history (and often the little touches) that make the difference.

The main hallway welcomes you with an immediate and tangible piece of Lincoln hanging on a hall tree.

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From the main hall, we were guided further into the house to the back parlor. One of two parlors in the home where guests would have been received, this parlor is particularly noteworthy. It was here on May 19, 1860, that members of the Republican National Committee would officially offer Abraham Lincoln the party’s nomination for President. A far cry from the pageantry, drama and spin of today’s nominating conventions, it was four days before he accepted the nomination.

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From there, we moved across the hall past a dining room and into the sitting room. In the sitting room (the equivalent of a modern-day family room) it is said that Lincoln would often lay on the floor, as most of the room’s furniture was not comfortable for his tall frame. He would read to the children, or play games with them. It was where they spent the majority of their family time, as the boys were not allowed in the formal parlors. And according to our guide, it was here that Lincoln would have frequent wrestling matches with his boys.

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The second floor housed a boy’s bedroom, as well as a small room for a “hired girl” (a hired girl was a young teenaged girl who helped with duties such as making fires, getting well water, cleaning lamps, etc.). A hired girl earned approximately $1.50 per week.

Additionally, the second floor housed a 2 bedroom suite for Abe and Mary. It was considered great luxury at that time for spouses to have separate bedrooms, though for many years, Mary shared hers with their youngest sons, Willie and Tad (Edward passed away before Willie and Tad were born). It wasn’t until Robert moved away to college that the younger boys could move across the hall into his room, finally affording Mary the privacy that her husband enjoyed.

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The final room of note was the kitchen. It is said that the kitchen in the Lincolns’ home was nearly identical in size to the one room cabin of his youth. Here are a two shots of the kitchen, though neither show the total room. But you can still get a sense of how small that cabin would have been. This kitchen was considered very modern for its time, and it is said that Mary had a hand in modernizing the White House kitchen.

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Mary loved entertaining and was a fan of cooking and baking. She was known to throw elaborate birthday parties for the boys (which was not at all common in those days). Her most famous recipe still lives on today. She often made a White Almond Cake, which was a particular favorite of Abe’s. It was such a well-known treat in their lives that a white almond cake is on display in the house, though the park staff enjoy moving it around from room to room to see if the tour guests will “discover” it. We found it in the dining room on our tour.

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After our tour of the home we explored the neighborhood a bit since the rain had stopped. Many of the houses on the block are privately owned, and while the owners can do what they like to the interior, the exterior and grounds are not to be touched. There are even some limitations placed on the homes regarding outdoor usage of the grounds.

Some of the other buildings are owned by the Park Service, while at least one serves as a Congressional District Office. This house is home to the the local office for the US Senate’s 13th District. If that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to you, the former occupant now sits at the White House.

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Visiting the Lincoln Home was a good start for insight into the man. His pre-Presidential life was full of family and community. The family experienced hard times (the death of their son Edward for starters), but to say it was a simpler time for the Lincolns would certainly be an understatement.

Next up, a tour the Presidential Museum.

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