- Putting Lincoln into PerspectivePlace, Thought, and History in Recent Lincoln Scholarship
It is said that more words have been written in English about Lincoln than about any other figure in history with the exception of Jesus Christ. While dwelling on the infinite should actually be an infinite task, Abraham Lincoln was just a man, if indeed a great man. It is a testament to Lincoln’s greatness that he still inspires so much scholarship, most of it quite good. Three recent books on Lincoln are no exception. Byron Andreasen’s Looking for Lincoln in Illinois: Lincoln’s Springfield; Joseph R. Fornieri’s Abraham Lincoln: Philosopher Statesman; and John McKee Barr’s Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present all contain original perspectives on Lincoln that make them worth a reader’s time.
Most think of Lincoln as being from Illinois, which would make him a midwesterner. Illinois likes to encourage this thought by calling itself “The Land of Lincoln.” Of course Lincoln was actually born in Kentucky, moved to Indiana as a boy, and was a grown man, twenty-one years of age, when he and the rest of the Lincoln clan finally moved to Illinois. Andreasen informs us in the preface that his slim volume is the outgrowth of a project [End Page 187] to create wayside storyboards to aid visitors to various Lincoln sites gain better historical appreciation of the man himself. The project started with storyboards around Lincoln’s adopted hometown, Springfield, Illinois, and that project is essentially recreated in this short but attractive book. Andreasen, a historian at the LDS Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, takes readers on a tour of fifty sites mostly in central Springfield that give insight into what the town was like in Lincoln’s day. The book offers a helpful map of downtown Springfield with a numbered key to each of the sites discussed in the book.
One impression that one gets from the book is that Lincoln’s story is typical of Springfield in that he was a transplant. As we meet various figures from antebellum Springfield a common theme is that the person came to Springfield from somewhere else. “Springfield was the center of Lincoln’s world for a quarter century,” writes Andreasen, “When he arrived here Springfield was, like himself, shaking off its rough, frontier beginnings.” Springfield had roughly ten thousand inhabitants when Lincoln moved there. While that would make Springfield a larger town by the standards of the day, it was still a hardscrabble town. Andreasen notes that Springfield had a “boy problem” in that the young boys of Springfield were a bit on the rowdy side, eventually causing Springfield to set a curfew. Springfield was still rustic enough to have problems with prairie wolves, causing the town to organize periodic wolf hunts. Lincoln himself, it is noted, was fond of playing “fives,” a sort of handball game brought over by Irish immigrants. A neighbor reports that Lincoln “kept his own horse . . . fed and milked his own cow.” Andreasen’s depiction of Springfield matches Lincoln’s description of his own youth, “the short and simple annals of the poor.” While Lincoln would cease to be poor as a successful lawyer, he clearly retained the common touch that his modest background in Springfield encouraged.
Andreasen also notes that Lincoln had as a barber a black man named William Florville. Florville himself came to Illinois from New Orleans, fearing he’d be captured and sold into slavery. “Travelling along Illinois’ Sangamon River in 1831 [Florville] met an axe-wielding young man in a red flannel shirt emerging from the woods—twenty-two-year-old Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln took Florville to New Salem for overnight lodging and saw him off to Springfield the next day.” Once Lincoln moved from...