The opening today of the film “Lincoln” is expected to renew interest in the United States’ 16th president — and to send those people to the sites dedicated to memorializing him.
Lincoln led a nomadic life, especially when he was young — he was born in Kentucky but spent much of his youth in Indiana, before he settled in Illinois. And, of course, he ended his life in Washington, D.C., the first American president to be assassinated.
Since his death in 1865, each of the places Lincoln lived have established memorials to his past presence. Kentucky and Illinois, no doubt, make the biggest deals that Lincoln once was there. But which state has the better claim to Lincoln’s legacy?
In Kentucky, the seat of all things Lincoln is in LaRue County — his birthplace and a later childhood home.
You’re Born in Only One Place
“One of the things that I really consider here is where the foundations of the morals of Lincoln are really instilled in him — through his family, through the church his family attends,” said Gary Ferguson, a park guide for the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, and an amateur Lincoln historian.
“It’s really here where his ideals on slavery are put in place. It’s really the beginning of what he will develop into later on.”
The Knob Creek farm is where Lincoln had his earliest memories, the national park said.
Consider Kentucky the place where Lincoln got his early real-life education. He attended school in Kentucky with his sister, Sarah, but Ferguson said he believes Lincoln also learned much from what he observed in Kentucky. It was the only state where Lincoln lived where slavery was legal, and it’s believed that some of the Lincoln family’s neighbors owned slaves, Ferguson notes.
Slavery was a reason why the Lincoln’s left Kentucky in the first place, said James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield, Ill.
Lincoln Chose Springfield
Thomas Lincoln, a skilled but uneducated laborer, couldn’t compete in an economic model that included slaves, Cornelius said. Lincoln’s youth in Indiana — the family moved to New Salem when Lincoln was about 7 — was also significant to his development, but Cornelius argues that Illinois has a special claim to Lincoln.
And, in turn, Springfield was special to Lincoln.
“We feel in Springfield and throughout Illinois – because Springfield is the only place that Abraham Lincoln chose to live completely of his own volition and that he chose to stay and that he chose to marry and chose to have four children there and build his life as a small businessman and then as a small politician and then as a big politician — that that is rightfully the home of Lincoln history,” Cornelius said.
What You’ll See at Either
First off, the log cabin in the Lincoln birthplace monument is not the actual log cabin where Lincoln was born — those pieces of wood disappeared long ago. Ferguson said the cabin on the site is similar to those from the era when Lincoln was born, in 1809. And, regardless, the farm is where Lincoln was born, just as Knob Creek is where he spent part of his childhood.
Springfield boasts more physical evidence that Lincoln was there, beyond the countless statues of the man spread throughout the town. His home is preserved — as are the several blocks around it, giving it the appearance of a Midwestern town in the mid-1800s.
The old Illinois state capitol — where Lincoln labored — is preserved there. And, of course, Lincoln was buried in Springfield.
Kentucky Had Lincoln First; Illinois Had Him Longest
“I have to side with Illinois,” said Matthew Pinsker, a history professor at Dickinson College who has written about Lincoln, including 2003’s “Lincoln’s Sanctuary.”
“Abraham Lincoln is from Kentucky and the state was certainly important to his life, and you can explain a lot about Lincoln’s attitudes by reminding people that he’s a white southerner. But Illinois is central to his story — and his rise there is the central dynamic that made him a great politician and a great president.”
The Lincoln story, plainly put, is of a farm boy who becomes a lawyer, and then president during a trying period in American history.
It starts in Kentucky, but too much of the action takes place in Illinois, Pinsker argues.
That said, Lincoln’s ties to Kentucky played a significant role in his politics, too. Lincoln, Pinsker said, long hoped that he could connect with poor white southerners — those who didn’t own slaves — and bring them to his side, banking on his origin as one of them.
“He never quite was able to do it,” Pinsker said.
Pinsker argues that Springfield is the best place to study Lincoln, but he adds that being anywhere Lincoln spent significant — Kentucky, Indiana or Illinois — time can be illuminating.