The House At Eighth And Jackson

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If he did ask such a question, he meant it purely as a joke, for it is now clear from structural evidence and the town tax records that the Lincolns together improved and expanded their home not once but six times while they lived in it—in 1846, 1849, 1853, 1855, 1856, and 1860—and apparently approved a seventh renovation from the White House in 1863.

This record of constantly growing affluence and comfort is further proof that Abraham Lincoln’s celebrated penury was always relative. Lincoln himself did little to dispel the myth of his poverty. Illinois was traditionally a Democratic state, and the Whigs, with whom he identified from boyhood until their party went out of existence, were widely denounced as “aristocratical”; it was not merely good politics, it was probably essential politics, that Lincoln appear always a little more threadbare than he really was.

In fact, as the comparative spaciousness and affluent furnishings of his home attest, he had come a very long way from the dark one-room cabins of his boyhood in Kentucky and Indiana and a considerable distance from the log houses of New Salem. He knew his rail-splitting youth was a political asset, but he did not like to dwell upon it; his whole boyhood, he told a campaign biographer, could be “condensed into one line and that one line you can find in Gray’s Elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’”

 
 

His marriage to the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky merchant-banker had helped make the “flourishing about in carriages” of Springfield’s most fashionable citizens seem less intimidating than it had seemed when he first arrived in 1837, and the house he and his wife occupied and steadily improved together nicely symbolizes the great and growing distance his will to succeed had put between the circumstances of his own life and those of his father, a gulf so wide he finally did not try to bridge it. No member of Lincoln’s family was asked to attend his wedding; neither his father nor his stepmother ever met his wife or saw their grandchildren. Lincoln revered the memory of his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, dead when he was nine, but was frankly scornful of his father, Thomas, who, he said, “never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name.” He visited Thomas Lincoln from time to time but never invited him to his home in Springfield, did not go to see him on his deathbed in 1851, never even ordered a headstone for his grave. In fact, only one member of Lincoln’s family is known to have stayed with the Lincolns, a cousin named Harriet Hanks, who lived at Eighth and Jackson for a time while attending a local seminary for young ladies; she later said she had been treated as a servant by Mary Lincoln.

A reporter reassured his readers that Lincoln’s house showed he was no untamed frontiersman.

He may have sometimes been irritated by the pretensions of his in-laws—Lincoln is supposed to have wondered why, if God was content with one d, the Todds demanded two—and they evidently never quite thought him worthy of Mary; but it was the kind of life led by Todds, not Lincolns, that he wanted for himself and for his children.

The aggregate of Lincoln’s own schooling, he once said, was less than a year—asked in 1858 to summarize his education, he answered simply “Defective”—but when it came time to educate his eldest son, he sent him to Phillips Exeter and Harvard, evidently intending to make of him an Eastern gentleman. He may have succeeded too well. On the centennial of his father’s birth in 1909, Robert refused to attend the dedication of the big Greek temple near Hodgenville, Kentucky, that now harbors the small cabin in which Lincoln is alleged to have been born. Archie Butt, military aide to the main speaker, President Theodore Roosevelt, thought he knew why: “If it be true, as I hear, that Bob Lincoln . . . does not relish the perpetuation of this cabin,” he wrote, “I cannot blame him. The very thought of it... would make any member of his family shudder with horror. It does not bear the stamp of poverty alone, but degradation and uncleanliness.”

If we are made a little nervous by the notion of a resolutely aspiring Abraham Lincoln, apparently willing to put behind him the people from whom he sprang in the course of bettering himself, we are still more wary when asked to consider him as a vote-seeking politician. Yet “politics were his life, newspapers his food, and his great ambition his motive force,” as his law partner, William Herndon, remembered. “He delighted [in politics], he revelled in it, as a fish does in water, as a bird disports itself on the sustaining air.”

The declining fortunes of his Whig party in Democratic Illinois led some of Lincoln’s early biographers to portray Lincoln as a political failure; in fact, he was a considerable success, a state legislator at twenty-five, a promising party leader well before he married.

But a second discovery made during the renovation of his home reminds us that there was nothing inevitable about his rise to power, that in order to become the Emancipator we remember best, Lincoln first had to master the small, sometimes seamy world of state and county politics and to learn to take seriously the importuning of ordinary citizens.