SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Abraham Lincoln is perhaps one of the most instantly recognizable leaders in American history.
As the nation’s 16th president, he led a country so divided, it nearly ripped itself apart. Yet, just as the country was reuniting, he was tragically assassinated before the wounds could heal.
“He’s an icon. We know what his uniform looks like. He’s got the stovepipe hat, he’s dressed all in black,” said Sam Wheeler, historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. “And, everybody thinks they know something about Lincoln.”
No where is the Lincoln legacy more apparent or more alive than in Springfield, a city of about 117,000 and the capital of Illinois. Here, Lincoln looms large. He is more than an abstract figure; his legacy is tangible.
That includes at his house and the museum dedicated to studying the 16th president. His image is on bike racks, and his story is told on countless historic markers.
“He’s ever-present. We all think that we know something about Lincoln,” Wheeler added. “But, as a historian, as somebody who takes the study of Lincoln, the life, the times and the legacy of Lincoln seriously, you have to cut through a lot of that stuff.”
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield are absolute must-sees for anyone looking to dig deeper into the story of Lincoln. These two destinations help to humanize Lincoln.
“He’s no longer a face on Mount Rushmore,” Wheeler said. “He’s no longer a face on currency.”
Lincoln was a family man, and he was wealthy. He owned one house in his lifetime, and it’s the centerpiece of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site.
He was a smart lawyer and a shrew politician. But, more than anything, he truly embodied the American spirit.
“This was a guy that born into abject poverty,” Wheeler said. “I often tell school kids this that I don’t know where you came from. I don’t know your personal story. You may have overcome some real tragedy in your life to get here. I’d put your story up right next to Lincoln’s.
“You probably didn’t come from a worse place than Abraham Lincoln,” Wheeler added. “A dirt floor cabin in the middle of the wilderness where he loses everybody that he loves. He has no education. His life is about clawing his way up from that. He was born in a log cabin with a dirt floor and dies in the White House. One of the most powerful men in the world. And, that’s America.”