The House At Eighth And Jackson

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One good measure of our apparently inexhaustible interest in Abraham Lincoln is that this year eight hundred thousand of us will be led through his house at the corner of Eighth and Jackson streets in Springfield, Illinois. So many people edge past the horsehair furniture and stomp up and down the narrow stairs that the National Park Service had to close the place down in 1987, take much of it apart, and put it back together again, newly decorated and sturdily reinforced with steel, to withstand the next generation of pilgrims.

I use the word pilgrims advisedly, for the refurbished house, its windows newly sealed against dust and weather, its air climate-controlled for the sake of the artifacts, the sanctioned path past its relics marked out by a narrow gray carpet and bound by wooden railings, seems more shrine than home. It is hard to believe that a prairie lawyer and politician, his wife, four sons, and a perpetually shifting cast of cooks and hired girls, cats and dogs, all ever really lived in these chaste rooms. No small boy ever tracked black Illinois mud across these bright Belgium carpets; no dirt ever sullied the broom that leans against the kitchen wall; no visiting pol ever missed the brown-and-white ceramic spittoon in the corner of the sitting room.

The site’s curious sterility is not really the fault of the Park Service, which has labored hard to make this old house a home again. The structure’s modest size and the long lines of people who wait in front of it each day to take the twenty minute tour demand that severe limitations be placed on visitors; much of the period furniture that fills the rooms has no genuine link with the Lincolns; and a good deal of educated guesswork has inevitably gone into the restoration. No one is even entirely certain anymore just where everyone slept.

And it should not surprise us that Lincoln’s house remains a shrine. He himself sympathized with the impulse to revere heroes. “Let us believe as in the days of our youth,” he once said, “that Washington was spotless. It makes human nature better to believe that one human being was perfect—that human perfection is possible.” From the moment of his assassination—and despite the hard work of a host of scrupulous biographers—Lincoln has remained a martyred saint to most of us: unfailingly modest and loving, candid and forbearing, selfless and self-depreciating.

But even as the Lincoln home has grown more immaculate, more monumentlike, discoveries made as the work went forward offer further clues to the real human being who lived here for seventeen years, adding fresh details to a Lincoln portrait that will always be tantalizingly incomplete.

 

Reconstructing the daily lives of the Lincolns is a tricky business. Precisely one letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to her husband written during the Springfield years has survived, and while a handful of Lincoln letters home do still exist, he was always reticent about his private life—"the most shutmouthed man that ever lived,” a close friend said—and routinely left the details of daily living to his wife. Most of his letters mirror little more than his genuine affection for Mary and for the boys he called “the codgers.” The result is that much of what we think we know about the Lincolns’ domestic lives is distinctly second- and third-hand, drawn from the memories of friends and neighbors and family members, some unwilling to be anything but worshipful, a few with old scores to settle. Opinions differ even on the quality of the meals prepared in the Lincolns’ small kitchen. One frequent Springfield visitor remembered that they were “famed for the excellence of many rare Kentucky dishes and, in season, . . . venison, wild turkey, prairie chickens, quail and other game”; another guest remembered “an old-fashioned mess of indigestion, composed mainly of cake, pies and chickens.”

As the size and furnishings of his home attest, Lincoln had come a long way from the cabins of his boyhood.

Most of the finds made during the recent renovation were important primarily to specialists: a staircase once led from one garret to the other; a cistern was uncovered behind the house, and a pump relocated to conform to it; the Lincolns’ wallpaper was gaudier than had once been thought.

But two discoveries were of wider interest. The first of them has permanently altered one of the oldest legends about the Lincolns. The dwelling to which the Lincolns brought their year-old son, Robert, in 1844 was a story-and-a-half Greek Revival cottage, built by Dr. Charles Dresser, the Episcopal minister who had married the couple two years earlier. Tradition has always held that although the family steadily grew—Edward Baker Lincoln was born here in 1846, William Wallace in 1850, Thomas, known as Tad, in 1853—Lincoln earned too little money to make any improvements on their increasingly crowded cottage until 1856, when Mary sold off eighty acres of land inherited from her father and took it upon herself to order up a second story. Lincoln was said to have been away circuit-riding while the work went on and to have claimed not to recognize his old house when he got back, asking a neighbor, “Stranger, do you know where Lincoln lives?”