`TO this place, and the kindness of these people I owe everything," Abraham Lincoln said in his "farewell address" to the good people of Springfield, Ill., as he departed for Washington to become the 16th president of the United States.
From almost any other politician, this utterance would have been unthinking glibness. But knowing Lincoln's utter frankness and incapacity for dissembling, one can only take him at his word.
Summer travels can afford opportunities for continuing education, or for keeping in touch with kin at a distance, or sometimes both. Springfield was my father's hometown as well as Lincoln's, and this seemed to be the summer for a dual-purpose pilgrimage, to inspect some family sites and to see what could be learned from visiting a great man's hometown.
Certainly Lincoln is ubiquitous in Springfield; everyone has a connection. Dad's grade school, Dubois, was named for a state auditor who early supported Lincoln for president; a cousin is a member of Lincoln's church.
One of the first lessons is, how uncomplicated it all seems. To us living in an era when sheer superfluity of information threatens to wash away whatever actual wisdom may be sprouting within our overloaded heads, the apparent simplicity of Lincoln's intellectual life can be an object of envy: He read a few books very well. When Tocqueville, in his "Democracy in America," wrote of the people on the Western frontier whose libraries consisted of Shakespeare and the Bible, and not much else, but those books
well-read and well-worn, he could have had Lincoln in mind.
In New Salem, a small village outside Springfield where Lincoln spent some critical years of his young manhood, there is on display a English grammar book of the type Lincoln once walked miles to acquire. Every American schoolchild has heard this kind of tale. And yet, in the context of that rustic settlement and Lincoln's hunger for learning, his making such a trek suddenly seems quite logical.
To visit his law offices, or the courtrooms where he tried cases, or the hall of the state House of Representatives where he served, or the chamber in the Old State Capitol where he received well-wishers during his presidential campaign (candidates in those days seldom actually went out seeking votes) is to be impressed with how simple things were then, but how completely the concepts of working popular democracy were put into action. The streets of Springfield were mud much of the year, and yet the Old State Capitol was built in a classical design whose Greek antecedents represented a touching assertion of kinship with the birthplace of democracy. "Everywhere about him," observes biographer Benjamin Thomas of the Springfield years, "Lincoln saw grass-roots democracy at work....[He] saw men come together in equality and mutual respect, not only in the State Legislature but also in private homes and humble crossroads meeting-houses to voice their free opinions."
The world of law, government, and public policy today is so big and crowded, so full of sheer stuff: volumes of statute books on miles of shelves in blocks of office buildings staffed by armies of public servants. It is salutary to remember that Lincoln did carry around all his important papers in his hat.
Lincoln's Illinois years demonstrated that the great lessons of life can be learned just as well on a small stage as a great one. The essentials of political dealmaking that he learned in the Illinois legislature set him in good stead later as he struggled to keep peace among factions of his own party and preserve the Union.
As a circuit lawyer, trying cases in tiny towns throughout central Illinois, he developed a simple eloquence and clear argument that got through to the least erudite jurors. Later he relied on that same approach in dealing with the whole country to make his case for democracy, for compassionate treatment of the rebellious South. He made use of the newspapers of his day, which carried the texts of his speeches, just as Franklin Roosevelt would later use radio and Ronald Reagan would use television.
To "this place, and the kindness of these people" he owed everything, for he had learned everything there, and from them.