While spending the past weekend in Springfield, Illinois (where I addressed the Illinois Libertarian Party convention), I took a few notes about Abe Lincoln’s adopted home town, which was long ago turned into a Shrine. (It was great fun, by the way, to receive a standing ovation in Springfield, Illinois, of all places, for a speech entitled "Why the Enemies of Liberty Love Lincoln.")
Springfield is a very pleasant-looking town of about a hundred thousand people. It is also the Illinois state capital. The downtown is very quaint and hospitable, although it is blighted by several gigantic, Pyramid-sized government buildings. Since it was the weekend, I was spared rubbing elbows with Illinois’ greasy political class (the former governor was recently convicted of racketeering and is on his way to prison, one hopes). Most of the shops seem to have a Lincoln theme of one kind or another. My favorite was a Mexican restaurant called "El Presidente Burritos."
The first thing I noticed that makes Springfield unique is that there are huge Lincoln heads everywhere — even on downtown garbage dumpsters and bus stop shelters. There is a giant Lincoln head around every corner, even in my hotel (the Route 66 Hotel and Conference Center). After checking in I left my room, rounded a corner, and wham! — smack dab into a gigantic Lincoln head picture hanging on the wall. His eyes are watching you wherever you go in Springfield. (I could swear the eyeballs in the picture were moving from side to side when I returned to my room later that evening.)
By far the biggest Lincoln head was in the new Lincoln Presidential Museum that opened up just this year. To appreciate this image recall the moment in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy & Co. first see the "Wizard." The Wizard is nothing but a giant head suspended up in the air, bellowing and fuming and frightening the daylights out of poor Dorothy (and especially the Cowardly Lion). In the Lincoln Presidential Museum is a gigantic white Lincoln head about fifteen feet in the air, surrounded by black curtains. The whole thing looked to be about thirty feet high and twenty feet wide. It all reminded me of how, in totalitarian countries, there were huge pictures of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, etc., etc., everywhere to constantly remind the public that the state is watching them.
That Abe was a wealthy mercantilist is evident everywhere. His house, which is cared for by the National Park Service, is in a part of town identified by street signs as "Old Aristocracy Hill." This section of town contains a number of restored nineteenth-century homes on Lincoln’s street. Abe’s former abode is by far the largest among all the homes of the "old aristocracy" of Illinois. Many of his neighbors were businessmen who were also identified as being active in the Whig Party, as was Lincoln for more than a quarter of a century. One of them was a tin cup manufacturer who held the contract for selling tin cups to the U.S. Army during the war, according to the plaque in front of his house. What a coincidence that he was also Abe’s neighbor. Small world.
The building that housed the Herndon-Lincoln law offices is only about thirty paces from the front door of the old state capitol building. While in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln was as instrumental as anyone in getting the state capital relocated to Springfield. The old railroad lobbyist made sure that he was as close as possible to the center of political chicanery in the state.
The Lincoln Museum is a no-expenses-barred kind of place. There are mannequins on display but also real actors dressed as Abe, his cabinet, and even John Wilkes Booth (dressed in a Confederate Army uniform as a little added piece of historical misinformation). The seventeen-minute video display in the museum uses futuristic, state-of-the-art technology that you have never seen in an ordinary movie theater. Much of the presentation is the usual propaganda song, complete with a yellow halo over Abe’s head. I’m not making this up: There really is a yellow halo over his head on the screen at one point.
The commentator in the video informs us that Abe’s stepmother believed he was "the nicest boy I’ve ever met." How sweet. We also learn that his law partner, William Herndon, supposedly said that Abe often came to work crying, with tears in his eyes, because of his personal suffering. But, the commentator assures us, the tears usually cleared up by mid-morning. Poor, poor, Abe.
There is little mention in the video of all the death and suffering caused by his invasion of the southern states, including his micromanaging of the waging of war on southern civilians. It is Abe we are supposed to feel so, so, sorry for.
The video also informs us that The Great Railroad Lobbyist did not get the idea for his "nation divided" speech from a study of American political history and philosophy but from Aesop’s Fables. The one about the lion talks of a house divided. It was young Abe’s favorite story, the actress portraying his stepmother says on the screen. She says he read it over and over again.
After a personal tragedy in his life "his pen knife was taken away from him," the commentator says, in order to keep him from committing suicide.
Outside the video room is another display that proclaims that an eleven-year-old Abe was "kicked in the head by a horse" and "believed to be dead for a while." The commentator brings this up during the video to say that the kick in the head is probably why his left eye sort of pointed out to the far left. He also divided Abe’s head in half vertically during the video to show us how he could smile and frown at the same time. One side of his face supposedly looked happy, the other sad. My impression of this, of course, was that it was odd that the Lincoln Shrine would be commenting on what a two-faced politician he was.
The most surprising part of the video is where the face of an ex-slave is on the screen and an actor’s voice quotes him as saying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a fraud, and freed no one. The voice accurately states, with the help of a map of the U.S., that the Proclamation only applied to "rebel territory" where it was impossible to free anyone, and that it specifically exempted the border states that were part of the union (by force). There is a 5—10 second segment of the video that mentions some of the criticisms of Lincoln by his contemporaries, but they are all jumbled together in a loud, incoherent rant where about twenty different voices are talking over each other.
The museum also has on display much of the fine china, crystal, and other personal items that one would expect to have been part of the household that lived in the largest house on Old Aristocracy Hill and was attended to by numerous servants. My favorite item in the gift shop was the plastic Lincoln head on the end of a foot-long stick with a trigger at the other end. When you pull the trigger Abe’s mouth opens and shuts. It will come in handy when I make speeches in the future and want to quote The Great Centralizer.
Many of the books written by the Lincoln Cult are for sale, of course. By far the largest stack of books, easily twice as many as any other, was Team of Rivals, recently published by the confessed plagiarist Doris Kearns-Goodwin. With this book this dishonest woman establishes herself as the new High Priestess of the Lincoln Cult. The museum is obviously happy to promote her book, a sign of the desperation the Cult seems to have in its never-ending crusade to keep from the prying eyes of the American public the truth about the real Lincoln.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His next book, to be published in October, is Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe (Crown Forum/Random House).