Recollections of Lincoln -- rock and fog

I grew up next door to the courthouse square in Urbana, Ill., where Lincoln once tried cases when he was riding the circuit back in the 1850s. This proximity to a legend helped to whet my admiration for the great American. The words of the Lincoln biographer and poet Carl Sandburg, uttered in an address to Congress commemorating the 150th anniversary of the birth of our 16th President, have long seemed to me to be particularly perceptive -- and worthy of repetition on every Lincoln Birthday.

``Not often in the story of mankind,'' said Sandburg, ``does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is as hard as rock and soft as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect.

``Here and there across centuries,'' Sandburg continued, ``come reports of men alleged to have these contrasts. And the incomparable Abraham Lincoln, born 150 years ago this day, is an approach if not a perfect realization of this character.''

Sandburg then cited a similar observation of his friend Mark Van Doren, the poet and playwright:

``To me, Lincoln seems, in some ways, the most interesting man who ever lived. He was gentle, but this gentleness was combined with a terrific toughness, an iron strength.''

As a very small boy I once heard an old-timer tell a story about Lincoln, unrecounted elsewhere as far as I know. Following is the reconstruction of what I heard, as it was told to my father and me. It is a recollection helped along by my father's retelling:

``I remember,'' this elderly man said, ``that when Lincoln was coming here, there used to be a sheep shed right next door to the courthouse. How do I know? Because when my family came up from Kentucky, we couldn't find any house to live in -- so we lived in the shed.''

He continued: ``I was a page in the court where Lincoln often came. I remember that a witness in one of his cases was a country girl, about 18 or 20. She was barefoot, and it was cold.

``Well, you know, Lincoln took up a collection for her, going from lawyer to lawyer in the courtroom to fill his hat. Then he sent me out to buy shoes for her.

``I will always remember her there, sitting on the front steps of the courthouse, stroking her new shoes.''

There, indeed, is a good illustration of the soft, compassionate side of Lincoln.

Lincoln, when he came to Urbana, roomed on Main Street, across the street from a cooper. One day Lincoln needed a fresh horse for the next stop on the circuit. Seeing the cooper in front of his shop, he called over to him: ``You have a horse I could use?''

``Sure,'' the cooper replied. He then escorted Lincoln to the back of his shop and said, ``There's your horse,'' pointing to a cooper's horse (somewhat like a sawhorse). Lincoln's laughter rang loud and long.

Again, Lincoln once took a few of the local citizenry out to what is now Crystal Lake Park (in North Urbana) to show them how he had won the name ``Rail-Splitter.'' This accomplished axman quickly felled a large tree as his friends applauded his skill and strength.

My ancestors on my mother's side came through the Cumberland Gap with, or at least at the same time as, Lincoln's grandfather -- also named Abraham Lincoln -- when he moved west from Virginia to Kentucky. My mother recounted that her father, Jackson Bailey, who was well up in age when she was born in the 1870s, got to know Lincoln when he came into Urbana in the early 1850s while circuit riding. My mother said her father, who had a ready wit, had bantered with Lincoln from time to time.

At the time of the Lincoln sesquicentennial -- on the very day that Sandburg addressed Congress -- I was wandering the streets of Springfield, Ill. Suddenly coming into view was the old courthouse. In Lincoln's day it had been the State Capitol, where Lincoln had been a legislator.

I was once told that as a prank the lanky young legislator had been known on occasion to jump out of the first-floor window of the Capitol instead of using the doors. This is probably one of the many ``tall stories'' told about Lincoln, one perhaps based upon the single instance when he leaped out of the window in Springfield's First Methodist Church -- to try to avoid a quorum. That was when the legislature was meeting in other buildings, before the Capitol was ready for occupancy.

It was while standing in front of this old Capitol that I dipped back into personal memories. It was in this same building that as a young lawyer, very wet behind the ears, I had tried a case before a very patient judge. To stand in that hallowed building where Lincoln had once walked was an awesome experience -- and I am still awed as I think about it.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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