Monday, December 2, 2013

Lincoln and Vandalia

Yesterday (December 1st) was the anniversary of the convening of the Ninth Illinois General Assembly at my hometown, Vandalia. That was the session in which Lincoln served his first political office. When the Association of Lincoln Presenters had their annual meeting in Vandalia in April 2004, I gave the following short talk about Lincoln’s time in the former capital. This speech was subsequently published as a 200th birthday commemoration in Springhouse magazine.

Abraham Lincoln first arrived in Vandalia on November 29, 1834, after a thirty-hour stage trip from Springfield. He was a newly elected representative from Sangamon County, ready to serve in the Ninth Illinois General Assembly. The statehouse at that time was Vandalia’s second capitol building that stood along Fourth Street near Gallatin, now marked with a plaque.

I grew up in Vandalia and knew, very early in my life, of his associations with the town when it was state capital (1819-39). Around the time I entered college, I began researching early Vandalia and enjoyed discovering information about Lincoln’s time there. He served in four terms in the state legislature. During Lincoln’s first session (1834-36), the House of Representatives met in the large downstairs room of the statehouse. Colleague Jesse K. Dubois recalled, “Lincoln didn’t take much prominence in the first session of the legislature in 1834. [John T.] Stuart at that time quite overshadowed him…. But the next session Lincoln was very prominent. He had by that time become the acknowledged leader of the Whigs in the House. Stuart had gone out and left him a clear field.” Thus Lincoln took his place as a leader in the Tenth General Assembly, in the newly constructed third Vandalia statehouse during the winter of 1836-37 and also the following summer. Lincoln served two more legislative terms, the Eleventh General Assembly (1838-40), which met first at Vandalia and then in Springfield, and finally the Twelfth General Assembly in Springfield (1840-41).

Paul Simon called Vandalia “a fascinating new world” for Lincoln and noted that the state government provided for Lincoln an eye-opening cross section of humanity. John Stuart helped him learn political procedure, which Lincoln used with his well-known sense of honesty and integrity. This crucial experience for Lincoln is still overlooked. I show my students excerpts from a wonderful 4-hour PBS program on Lincoln from 2000. As the voice-over tells of Lincoln’s election to the state legislature in 1834, the photos go from a scene of New Salem to the old capitol in Springfield, bypassing the Vandalia Statehouse altogether. The narration mentions Vandalia only in connection to Lincoln’s work in moving the capital to Springfield; the town becomes the foil for the great man’s early political experience. Later, the program gives a quick, unidentified picture of early Vandalia’s Charter’s Hotel at Fourth and Gallatin, but that is all.  (Most documentaries that I’ve seen on Lincoln also bypass Vandalia and the statehouse.)

Lincoln roomed in Vandalia for a period of about 10 months altogether. Oral traditions indicate that he lodged at a small cottage on Johnson Street near Sixth, and at the Globe Hotel on Gallatin Street near the statehouse. Vandalia historian Mary Burtschi records two oral traditions about Lincoln’s local experiences. In one story, Lincoln felt cold in the newly constructed statehouse, and a friend teased him about his big feet, “It’s no wonder that you are so cold, there is so much of you on the ground.” She also relates the story that Lincoln danced with a young local woman, Matilda Flack, at the Vandalia Hotel. Unfortunately he tore her dress when he stepped on it. We know more about Lincoln’s experiences in the legislature, well treated by Senator Simon in his 1965 book: Lincoln’s growth in leadership, his handing of issues important both to the state and his home county, his confrontations with Vandalian William L. D. Ewing concerning the seat of government, his protest against slavery, and others.

Lincoln did not describe his experiences at Vandalia. In a Dec. 1836 letter to Mary S. Owen he said “I really can not endure the thought of staying [at Vandalia] ten weeks,” but he also said his spirits were low for several reasons. He was also depressed when he lived in Springfield! Later in life he also noted that he met Stephen A. Douglas at Vandalia in 1834. But Lincoln’s friend John T. Stuart did have these words:

The whole country was entirely new and there were but few accommodations to be had. I remember that one of the objections that were urged against keeping the seat of government at Vandalia was that they did not feed us on anything but prairie chickens and venison. A piece of fat pork was a luxury in those days—we had such a longing for something civilized.

Mary Burtschi was the first Vandalia historian to challenge the notion that Vandalia was a primitive place of log cabins, and she was correct. The New Gazetteer by Bishop Davenport noted that Vandalia had “many handsome brick buildings” about 80 to 100 houses. Another book of the time, Illinois in 1837 reported that Vandalia had Methodist and Presbyterian churches, a school, two printers, four taverns, eight stores, two groceries, a clothing store, two schools, four lawyers, four doctors, two mills, and about 850 citizens. The two printers were William Walters, who published the democratic newspaper Illinois State Register, and William Hodge (buried the old state cemetery) who published the Whig Free Press. Vandalia also had a bookshop and a barbershop on Gallatin, a jewelry store and a tailor in stores across from the public square, and other interesting places. The bookstore carried stationary, sealing wax, flutes, thermometers, and money belts. Moses Phillips, the grandfather of local historian Robert W. Ross, had a furniture store. As a side note, people sometimes wonder whether Vandalia’s Main Street was not at one time the primary thoroughfare. Gallatin Street evolved into the “main” street very early in the town’s history, as early as 1821 or 1822. One notable exception, however, was Capps’ Store at Fourth and Main, renowned for its wide variety of goods. This Main Street store was frequented both by local citizens and legislators. In 1839 Capps advertised medicines that cured “dyspepsia, cholics, lowness of spirits, palpitation of the heart, and diseases resulting from a disordered condition of the stomach and liver.” There are stories of legislatures running up very high bills for liquor and party items from Capps’ store.

Vandalia did lack for certain things. People complained it was isolated. In the preface of his collection of Illinois Supreme Court cases, jurist Sidney Breese complained that the capital had no regular law library. More pressingly, although Vandalia had at least thirteen hotels and boarding houses in the mid 1830s, if we take the recollections of people like John T. Stuart seriously, Vandalia accommodations were insufficient for everyone attending the legislative sessions: not only state officials but also observers and others, a few hundred visitors piling into a town of only 850. By the mid 1830s Vandalia was no longer posed for local prosperity in the same way as communities like Springfield and others in the growing central and northern portions of Illinois. People who complained of Vandalia’s isolation and accommodations assumed the town could never offer anything better.

And yet, contemporary observers unanimously fail to mention a crucial fact about Vandalia: it was only by the initiative of Vandalians that the state of Illinois had a state capitol building! Of the three statehouses in Vandalia, only the first, which burned in 1823, was constructed by direct state authorization. Although the second capitol was hastily completed upon low ground and ultimately unsound, Vandalians stepped forward to construct the building when the first burned, and Vandalians also stepped forward to construct the third capitol, our Old State House, in 1836. (One of my ancestors participated in that 1836 building effort.) Since Vandalia was designated capital for only twenty years, the state legislature was never inclined to appropriate money for the town, even for suitable government buildings, although one should add that the government did later reimburse townspeople for materials and labor for both the second and third statehouses.

His legislative terms were not the end of Lincoln’s Vandalia associations. According to documents in the collected works of Lincoln, he stayed at Vandalia four days in July 1844 for a Whig convention, a very festive occasion with an estimated crowd of 5000 men and 1000 women on hand for a Friday barbecue “at the west end of town.” He also visited Vandalia on two occasions for political meetings during the 1856 campaign. One wonders what Lincoln remembered of the town. Perhaps he recalled how his horizons were broadened and his political skills honed as a young state representative in a town where citizens truly outdid themselves.

Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln by Douglas L. Wilson. Knopf, 1998.

Lincoln. Produced and Directed by Peter W. Kunhardt. Warner Home Video, 2000.

Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, by Paul Simon. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois, by Usher F. Linder. Chicago Legal News Co., 1879.

Vandalia: Wilderness Capital of Lincoln’s Land, by Mary Burtschi. Little Brick House, 1963.

High on the Okaw’s Western Bank: Vandalia, Illinois, 1819-1839 by Paul E. Stroble. University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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