The House At Eighth And Jackson

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In 1849, Park Service experts now speculate, someone—probably six-year-old Robert or one of his playmates—fed some of his father’s old papers into a crack above the baseboard in the kitchen’s north wall. They were soon obliterated by a shower of plaster shaken down upon them by further alterations to the house. A field mouse then constructed its nest atop the plaster. (When what was left of the papers was uncovered in 1987, the delicate skeleton of the nest’s builder still lay cuddled up inside it.)

There was nothing momentous in this cache; nothing in Lincoln’s own hand, in fact, except part of a franked but empty envelope addressed to the Washington landlady in whose boardinghouse he lived while in Congress. The papers include two more or less intact letters from Illinois political allies, termite-chewed fragments of two additional letters from constituents seeking favors, and a copy of an 1849 speech by a fellow Whig congressman, James Wilson of New Hampshire, opposing slavery’s spread into the lands newly acquired from Mexico, its pages still uncut.

One letter, from David Dickinson, a political backer from Lacon, Illinois, was written in early 1846, while Lincoln was maneuvering to assure his own nomination for the state’s single safe Whig congressional seat. Lincoln believed that he had an agreement with the two other leading party hopefuls—Edward D. Baker (for whom his second son was named) and John J. Hardin—that they would rotate the nomination among themselves, and that 1846 was his turn. But Hardin, a former incumbent (and Mary’s distant cousin), had other ideas and schemed to seize the nomination for himself. Lincoln finally forced him to withdraw, but he was evidently still wary of a last-minute betrayal, for Dickinson wrote to reassure him that he had been scouting Putnam County, on the lookout for Hardin’s “moccasin tracks,” and that all was well.

During his single term in Congress, Lincoln was besieged by letters from constituents demanding services. Two of these survived beneath the mouse nest. One voter asked him to register a patent for a “compound vegetable” elixir that cured “dyspepsia . . . weakness ... or a bad cold . . .”; the other hoped the congressman could arrange for him a commission in the Army, then fighting the Mexican War. “I hope to obtain your interference in my behalf,” the aspiring officer wrote, “and if I succeed rest assured sir that it will never be forgotten by me. . . .” It is unlikely that the young congressman’s interference did his eager constituent much good with the Democratic administration; Lincoln was a freshman and a Whig who believed the current struggle in the Southwest “a war of conquest brought into existence to catch votes.” But it is likely that he did his best; he could not afford to be forgotten by any voter.

Lincoln’s first love may have been politics, but he made his money as a lawyer, at least five thousand dollars annually by the 1850s, and the result was that he wasn’t home much; for up to six months a year he was away politicking and trying cases on the Eighth Circuit, a vast shifting area that once encompassed fourteen counties, one-fifth of the state. “During my childhood and early youth,” Robert Lincoln once recalled, trying to explain why his father had never found the time to tell him much about his own boyhood, “[my father] was almost constantly away . . . attending courts or making political speeches.”

 

During all that time, year after year, Mary was left to run her household and raise her children largely on her own, and it is understandably her impress rather than her husband’s that is most evident in their house. It was Mary who studied Miss Leslie’s House Book, or Manual of Domestic Economy for Town and Country; who saw to it that the ceilings were freshly whitewashed and the oil lamps were filled and their wicks trimmed; who arranged the seashells on the what-not shelves in the parlor. (Lincoln’s own mussed, intensely masculine world was epitomized by the law office, five blocks away, where he spent most daylight hours when he was in Springfield. It was so disheveled, a clerk recalled, that government seeds brought back with him from Washington actually sprouted in one unswept corner.)

A reporter from upstate New York, ushered through the Springfield house shortly after Lincoln was nominated for the Presidency, reassured his Republican readers that they need not fear that they were being asked to vote for an untamed frontiersman. The candidate’s “house was neatly without being extravagantly furnished,” he wrote. “An air of quiet refinement pervaded the place. You would have known instantly that she who presided over the modest household was a true type of the American lady. There were flowers upon the tables . . . pictures upon the walls. . . . The thought that involuntarily blossomed into speech was—‘What a pleasant home Abe Lincoln has.’”