Abraham Lincoln came to Springfield on April 15, 1837.
Carl Sandburg tells the story of how Lincoln walked into Joshua Speed's store and asked the price of bedclothes. “Seventeen dollars,” replied Speed.
"Cheap as it is," Lincoln said, "I have not the money to pay, but if you will credit me until Christmas, and my experiment here as a lawyer is a success, I will pay you then. If I fail in that, I will probably never pay at all."
Speed took pity on this "gloomy and melancholy" face and offered to share his living quarters above the store. Lincoln accepted, and a friendship was born.
Though Lincoln was a new resident of Springfield, he was not a stranger to the town. Since 1834, Lincoln had represented Sangamon County in the Illinois General Assembly and helped move the capital from Vandalia to Springfield. The prairie city was growing rapidly. A newspaperman wrote in 1839 that Springfield contained "a throng of stores, taverns, and shops . . . and an agreeable assemblage of dwelling houses very neatly painted, most of them white, and situated somewhat retiringly behind tasteful frontyards."
For Lincoln, a young lawyer and up-and-coming State legislator, Springfield possessed opportunities which could only enhance his already promising future. Here, Lincoln could meet politicians and local leaders from all over the state. One was Stephen A. Douglas, a state senator who would defeat Lincoln in the 1858 election for the U.S. Senate. And here, too, he met Mary Todd.
Mary Todd came from a prominent family. She was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on December 13, 1818, the daughter of Robert Todd, a banker. The Todds were leading members of the community. They had helped found Lexington and Transylvania University, the first college west of the Appalachians. Mary grew up amid all the comforts which the times and area offered: she went to a private school which children of only the "best families" attended, and slaves waited on her.
In October 1839, Mary Todd came to Springfield to live with her sister, Elizabeth, the wife of Ninian Wirt Edwards, son of a former governor of Illinois. Mary joined the group of Springfield’s single young men and women who often gathered at the Edwards home. Among the young men were Stephen A. Douglas; Edward C. Baker, a future U.S. representative; James Shields, a future U.S. senator from Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri; Lyman Trumball, a future U.S. senator from Illinois; and Lincoln.
Lincoln and Mary Todd were fast friends. The intensity of their relationship waxed and waned as the months passed, but in the fall of 1842, they decided to marry. It was a decision that her sisters found difficult to accept; in their eyes, Lincoln's background did not measure up to Mary's.
Lincoln went to the home of the Episcopal minister Rev. Charles Dresser on the morning of November 4, 1842 and told him, "I want to get hitched tonight." Lincoln and Mary chose the minister's home as the site of their wedding because of Mary’s family's opposition. But when her family learned that Mary was determined to go wed Lincoln, the Edwards insisted that the wedding must take place in their home. That evening Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln stood before Rev. Charles Dresser and exchanged vows.
Their first year together, the Lincolns lived in a hotel boarding house, the Globe Tavern. In that residence, their first child, Robert Todd Lincoln, was born on August 1, 1843. The noisy, crowded conditions in the Globe did not make for a homelike environment, so the Lincolns moved and spent the winter in a rented three-room cottage at 214 South Fourth St. The next spring, Lincoln bought Rev. Dresser's home on the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets for $1,200 cash and a small lot worth $300.
They lived on a tight budget. Lincoln himself chopped the wood, carried the water, milked the cow, and did the rest of the chores men did in those days.
To keep the money coming in, Lincoln traveled the Eighth Judicial Circuit. The Circuit, in which he practiced law, covered 12,000 square miles and was sparsely settled with county seats far apart, connected by rough roads often in disrepair.
Lincoln traveled this circuit on horseback, exposed to the elements, with a volume of the Revised Statutes, copies of Blackstone's Commentaries and Chitty On Pleadings, and an extra shirt and change of underwear in his saddlebags. Lincoln made a name for himself on the circuit, and in 1846 he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Whig. That same year the Lincolns' second son, Edward Baker, was born.
The first year home from Congress proved to be emotionally taxing for the Lincolns. Mary faced the death of her father and maternal grandmother, both strong figures in her life. One of Mary's brothers contested her father's will and Lincoln served as the lawyer for Mary and her three sisters in Springfield. In mid-December their son, Eddie, became ill, apparently with consumption. The Lincolns nursed Eddie for 52 days. On the morning of February 1, 1850, he died. Mary, already worn out from the agony of the past year, collapsed in grief and shock when she heard the news.
Soon, however, the Lincolns were heartened by the expected birth of their third son, William Wallace, who was born December 21, 1850. A fourth son, "Tad," was born April 4, 1853.
The Lincolns loved their children and indulged them greatly. Mary paraded their accomplishments before visitors, gave them elaborate birthday parties and often joined in their games, throwing dignity to the wind. Lincoln often took the two youngest to his law office and let them run wild while he worked.
Lincoln returned to politics in the spring of 1854. U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act became law, repealing the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery north of 36° 30' N. latitude, Missouri's southern border,. Lincoln and many of his fellow Whigs opposed the new law, and in the elections that fall, they sought to bolster their strength in Congress and the state legislatures. Lincoln's reputation grew.
In 1855, Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate, but lost. One year later, at the first Republican national convention in Philadelphia, the Illinois delegation nominated him for vice president. He lost again, but more and more people were beginning to recognize his name.
Senator Douglas came up for reelection in 1858. On June 16, the state Republican convention nominated Lincoln for the seat. In his acceptance speech at the State Capitol, Lincoln set the tone of the campaign when he said, "'A house divided against itself cannot stand!' I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free."
On the advice of his managers, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of 7 debates during the fall of 1858. Douglas was reluctant, but finally accepted. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates ensued. These debates helped make Lincoln a national figure. His logic, moral fervor, spare and elegant language, and skillful debating techniques diminished Douglas' reputation. Douglas won the election, however.
Lincoln continued to give speeches, many in support of the Republican party, throughout the Midwest. In October of 1859 he was invited to speak in the East. His speech to the Young Men's Central Republican Union of New York City at Cooper Union on February 27, 1860, brought him to the attention of influential Republicans in the Northeast. He exhorted his audience to compromise readily if the occasion arose but not to shrink from their opposition to the extension of slavery.
"Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it," Lincoln said.
At the 1860 Republican convention in Chicago, William H. Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania were the leading contenders for the party's presidential nomination. But Lincoln was a new man and had few opponents. Through the political astuteness of his managers and his own shrewd politicking, he won the nomination on May 16, 1860. Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was selected as his running mate. Lincoln learned of the nominations by telegram in Springfield. Beaming, he shook hands all around and went home to tell Mary the news.
In the general election, Lincoln faced Stephen Douglas, John Breckinridge, and John Bell. Lincoln spent most of election day at his office.Lincoln took only 40 percent of the popular vote, but he received a clear majority of the electoral vote.
On January 27, 1861, Lincoln announced that he would depart for Washington on February 11 and asked for the "utmost privacy" during the rest of his stay in Springfield. Much had to be done before the departure. The house on Eighth Street, with all its memories, had to be vacated and some household articles sold or packed. Lincoln himself roped the trunks going to Washington, and put a card on each one labeled "A. Lincoln, White House, Washington, D.C."
On the rain-swept morning of February 11, 1861, Lincoln stood on the Springfield train platform. In a voice trembling with emotion he addressed the crowd:
“My friends. No one not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as l hope in your prayers you will commend me I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
Adapted from the National Park Service. Used with permission.