Note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is sponsored by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200Illinois.com.
Abraham Lincoln may not have been born in Illinois, but he clearly is among the state’s favorite sons.
Lincoln came into the world on Feb. 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Ky., but eventually spent several decades living in Illinois and departed for the presidency as a resident of Springfield. He was a shopkeeper, postmaster, lawyer and state and federal legislator before being elected president in 1860.
He served as the nation’s 16th President from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. The bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth prematurely took one of the nation’s greatest presidents from its citizens, but could not diminish his accomplishments — notably the abolishment of slavery — that have defined his legacy.
Planting roots in Illinois
Lincoln had a humble beginning. The second child and first son of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, he was born in a one-room log cabin. He did not have the benefit of consistent formal schooling, as he often worked to help support his family during his childhood in Kentucky and then Indiana.
The family moved to Illinois in 1830 and Lincoln wound up in New Salem working as postmaster and shopkeeper. He became involved in local politics, winning a seat in the state legislature in 1834. He taught himself law and passed the bar in 1836; a decade later, he won a seat to the U.S. House of Representatives.
He married Mary Todd in November 1842. They had four sons, although only the eldest, Robert Todd, survived into adulthood. The Greek Revival house the family lived in for 17 years still sits in Springfield today with its homestead a popular place for tourists to visit when they come to the state’s capital.
Lincoln’s biggest accomplishment was probably the abolishment of slavery, an issue he began speaking out against as a young adult. His first statement on the issue is said to have been March 3, 1837, when he said “the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy” during a speech at the state legislature when it was in Vandalia.
It was an issue he would repeatedly discuss during his political career. When accepting the Republican nomination in June 1858 during a convention in Springfield to be the party’s candidate for U.S. Senate, Lincoln gave his “A house divided against itself cannot stand” speech. And it was one of the main issues discussed during his failed bid for the Senate. During the 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas, the future President forcefully spoke out against slavery. While he lost that race, those seven debates gave him the national prominence he needed to win the presidency.
Lincoln was elected the 16th President in November 1860 and took office the following March. Much of Lincoln’s time as president was spent on the issue of slavery, as the divide between the North and the South as to whether it should be allowed led to the Civil War starting a month after he took office.
It was during the war that his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Confederate states, went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. And it was on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Civil War that Lincoln delivered perhaps the most important speech in American history. The Gettysburg Address, given Nov. 19, 1863, is known for Lincoln’s succinct summary of the purpose of the U.S.: That the country was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln was elected to a second term as the war raged on, but his death came shortly after his second inauguration and just as the Civil War was coming to an end. He was shot April 14, 1865, while watching “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. It was Good Friday, just five days after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Booth, a sympathizer with the Confederacy, shot Lincoln point-blank in the back of his head.
News of Lincoln’s death arrived in Springfield via telegraph at 3 a.m. April 15, 1865, to the Daily State Journal’s newsroom. “The president was shot in a theater tonight and is probably mortally wounded,” read the dispatch.
Moments later another followed: “The president is not expected to live through the night. ... Secretary (of State William) Seward was also assassinated. No arteries were cut. Particulars soon.”
The second, of course, was inaccurate about Seward’s fate, but the news about Lincoln was correct. Additional dispatches painted the chaos inside Ford’s Theater, including the sound of a pistol, a man waving a dagger leaping from the president’s box, the screams of Mrs. Lincoln and finally, the heartbreaking confirmation that the 16th President had died.
A train carried Lincoln’s body throughout the country for nearly two weeks, allowing citizens to grieve their loss. On May 3, crowds descended upon Springfield as the train carrying him pulled into town for the President’s burial.
“Today, we lay him reverently to rest amid the scenes he loved so well,” read in the Journal the next day. “Millions will drop a tear to his memory and future generations will make a pilgrimage to his tomb. Peace to his ashes.”
Pilgrimages continue to the 16th President’s tomb to this day with many visitors rubbing the nose of the bronze head of Lincoln that sits in front of the entrance to the tomb. The words uttered by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton upon Lincoln’s passing have indeed come true: "Now he belongs to the ages.”