Alexia Kemerling, Hiram College Garfield Presidency Scholar, recaps her experiences on the group’s fall study tour to Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. The trip was led by Douglas Brattebo, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and director of the James A. Garfield Center for the Study of the American Presidency. Twenty-six students, first-years to seniors, from a wide range of majors, comprise this year’s group of Scholars.
This summer the Garfield Presidency Scholars immersed ourselves in the study of Abraham Lincoln. We read several books and this fall we have spent many Monday evenings discussing the hardships of Lincoln’s early childhood, his unconventional pathway to the presidency, and of course, his eventual legacy as the Great Emancipator. At times, Lincoln seems too good to be true. Even without a formal education, his writings were eloquent and his ideas demonstrated a nuanced and courageous political philosophy. How did such a “common prairie statesmen” end up saving the Union? Undeniably, Lincoln was strikingly human. His life was full of tragedy and loss, and he was not immune to depression and self-doubt.
With knowledge of Lincoln’s remarkable life fresh in our minds, we set out before sunrise on October 3 on a three-state journey to retrace his formative years. Our journey began in the quaint town of Hodgenville, Kentucky. It was here, among the seemingly endless bluegrass pastures and hardwood forests, that Lincoln was born and spent his early years.
Our first stop was at the Abraham Lincoln birthplace where the once modest Sinking Spring Farm has been transformed into a magnificent monument. Perched on top of the knoll above the natural spring, where historians believe the Lincoln family’s home once stood, is a granite and marble memorial building. Fifty-six steps, one for each year of his life, lead up to the structure. Inside is a reconstruction of the one room log cabin where he was born. The humble structure represents Lincoln’s hardships and how an ordinary life can become an extraordinary one.
“It’s kind of fitting,” Bill Oswald, a friend and fellow scholar of mine, remarked. “Inside this impressive building is a simple log cabin. This is the perfect metaphor for the ‘common man’s president.’” A subsequent stop at a 30-acre field next to a second boyhood home enabled us to ponder Old Abe at play among the crops as a young boy.
We were also able to venture down the steps to the natural spring, which gave the farm its name. In sticking with the theme of appreciating Kentucky’s natural wonders, we took a slight detour the next morning to Mammoth Cave. No, Lincoln never went on the “Domes and Dripstones” tour, but as an avid wanderer, I like to think he would have enjoyed exploring the cave as much as we did.
Our journey then led us to the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, Indiana. This is where Lincoln spent the majority of his adolescence. As Lincoln later put it: “There I grew up.” It is where he lost his birth mother but gained a step-mother, who pushed him to pursue his interest in reading. It is where the relentless trials of pioneer life pushed him to venture off on his own in search of something greater. As we walked past the foundation remains of the Lincolns’ original home, we saw the infamous white snakeroot plant that caused the fatal illness of Lincoln’s mother. Reenactors on the site helped us imagine what daily farm life was like.
Continuing to follow Old Abe, we “drifted” to Petersburg, Illinois, to visit the New Salem Historic Site. Here, Lincoln rose on his own merit. He went from being a “piece of floating driftwood” with no concrete ambitions in life to a respected, well-known community member. His potential began to bloom. The historic site consisted of log cabins reconstructed and placed, just as they would have been, in the small nineteenth century town. One building even had original logs, logs Lincoln’s hands would have touched. At the suggestion of our guide, all twenty-six of us wrapped our arms around the building—clinging to the cold wooden logs as if some detectable trace of Lincoln’s brilliance had been etched into their grains. We felt a bit goofy, but how could we resist?
We spent our final two days in Springfield, IL, where Lincoln’s career in law, and later in politics, took off. In the Old State Capitol we learned about the relationship between Lincoln and his most famous rival, Stephen Douglas. We stood in the courtroom where the two would have argued, relentlessly but politely. Though they are most remembered for their heated debates, they had a deep respect for one another.
Later that day, Lincoln interpreter George Buss, met us in the Old Senate chamber. Tall and thin, dressed in a black suit and stovepipe hat, Buss’s resemblance to the 16th President is surreal. His knowledge and embodiment of Lincoln thoroughly impressed us as we peppered him with the questions that had plagued our minds in the previous weeks.
We also visited Lincoln’s Springfield home. We stood in the wallpapered parlor room, where Lincoln was first asked if he would accept the 1860 Republican nomination for the presidency. His response? “I’ll think about it.” The room was also where all four of his children were born and where little Eddie’s funeral was held. True to the whole of Lincoln’s life, each site is a place of unthinkable tragedy and remarkable accomplishment.
As we walked through the old house, we admired (or cringed at) the dark patterned wallpaper, green and red carpet, and other relics of the time. We marveled at the small wooden desk in the bedroom and imagined Lincoln, hunched over, penning the “House Divided” speech.
“Here, he was Pa, a normal guy just trying to make a living,” our guide told us.
On day five, our journey drew to close. We stopped at Oak Ridge Cemetery to pay our respects at the Lincoln tomb. The tomb is a one-story, granite structure. A 117-foot obelisk stretches high into the sky. Inside, the marble rotunda is beautiful and serious. Our usually chatty group grew quiet. In the final resting place of the Great Emancipator, we took a moment to be still and take in all we had seen and learned, while recalling the words of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: “Now he belongs to the ages.”