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Lincoln and Chicago

Fri, May 27, 2011

When Mark Pohlad talks about Abraham Lincoln’s love for Chicago, the years melt away and you’re up close and personal with the first President to have connections here.
Pohlad is an associate professor of art history at DePaul University who publishes in the field of photohistory. He spoke to Friends of Downtown in March to mark 150 years since Lincoln’s inauguration as President and had a similar conversation with StreetWise.
“Lincoln wanted to retire in Chicago,” Pohlad said. “He and Mary [Todd Lincoln, his wife] spoke about that in the last four days before his shooting. Mary was a compulsive shopper and Lincoln loved the theater.” Ironically, he was fatally shot while at the theatre to mark the end of the Civil War.
In 1849, Lincoln had been offered a job in Chicago, but he chose not to take it. Instead, he kept the city as his getaway spot, using it as many people do today, Pohlad said.
He would get off the train from Springfield at Water Street and walk up commercial Lake Street to the Tremont Hotel. Located on the southeast corner of Lake and Dearborn Streets, the Tremont was Chicago’s political center. U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas and Chicago Mayor “Long” John Wentworth both kept suites there and Lincoln had his presidential campaign headquarters there in 1860.
Similar to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Pohlad noted, Douglas was the established politician whom Lincoln debated around Illinois in an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1858. Then Lincoln defeated Douglas for the presidency.
The Republican party had nominated Lincoln during its convention just two blocks from the Tremont, at a temporary building known as the Wigwam. This building was south of the Chicago River, across from where the Merchandise Mart is today. Lincoln had Went-worth’s support and also that of the Chicago Tribune, the Republican newspaper, because he adhered to the party platform that opposed extension of slavery into U.S. territories.
During the 1860 GOP convention, Lincoln supporters had sent a shower of his pictures down upon delegates to win his nomination.
“Just like now, information equals affirmation,” Pohlad said.
Afterward, there was intense interest in this new western candidate, just as there was for Obama. Photographers went to Springfield to shoot his portraits, which newspapers transferred to line drawings, the limits of printing technology at the time.
“Lincoln was the first candidate of a new visual age,” Pohlad said. “He was not the first President to be photographed, but the first extensively photographed and the first who knew photography made a difference. He used to say ‘Mathew Brady and the Cooper Union speech put me in the White House.’”
The anti-slavery speech introduced Lincoln to the East coast and won over people who had thought he was a western rube.
Lincoln’s imagery owes its consistency to work done in Chicago: a plaster life mask of his face and a cast of his hands made by Chicagoan Leonard Volk right before the nomination. “Every subsequent sculptor has used the life mask for his work,” Pohlad said.
Augustus St. Gaudens, for example, used it for his statue in Lincoln Park, which was unveiled in 1887 by Abraham Lincoln II “Jack,” the grandson who looked like Lincoln did at the same age. The young man died tragically three years later while studying for Harvard entrance exams, after a lanced carbuncle turned into blood poisoning.
Pohlad prefers a statue of a clean-shaven Lincoln, the way he looked in the 1850s.
“For my money the best statue, the only statue that shows the way he looked in Chicago is at Lincoln, Lawrence and Western. A copy should be in the Loop.”
Proposed by the local alderman in 1951 and completed in 1956, the Lincoln Square statue was planned by a Lincoln Memorial Commission created by the Illinois Governor and General Assembly, according to the web site for the Goethe Institut. The winning sculptor was Avard Fairbanks, a protégé of the artist who did Mt. Rushmore.
During his last visit to Chicago November 24 and 25, 1860, Lincoln started to grow a beard befitting his new Presidential status and he had a new portrait taken. He also met with his vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, visited St. James Episcopal Cathedral at Wabash and Huron as well as a summer Sunday School across the Chicago River run by Dwight Moody, not far from today’s Moody Bible campus. “He spoke to the children and said if you listen to your teachers and work hard, you can do what I’ve done.”
Lincoln visited the home of political supporter Ebenezer Peck at what is now Clark and Fullerton in Chicago and spent the night at Julius White’s home at Ridge and Church in Evanston.
The Civil War prevented Lincoln from maintaining his Chicago connections. Unable to attend a fair here in support of Union troops, he sent a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which sold for $3,000. But it burned in the Chicago Fire of 1871, along with most of the Chicago Lincoln knew.
“He needed to die to become the martyr of the Civil War,” Pohlad said. “It’s the American passion play, saving the union but dying afterward to do it, sacrificing the greatest American. Had he lived, there would have been the messy Reconstruction. But he might have met with Frederick Douglass to see the gains consolidated by the Emancipation of slaves, it’s hard to know.”

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