The Library and Abraham Lincoln

The library also continued to function as an informal political arena, and Abraham Lincoln played a noteworthy part in its history. He had checked out the first book in the new library on Dec. 16, 1842, choosing Volume I of the Revised Laws of New York, but found a way to circumvent the rules. Since he was not a member of the legislature, Lincoln signed out the book in the name of his law partner, Stephen T. Logan, a member of the House. Lincoln was a regular visitor to the room in the years to follow. Library records show he checked out only two books – the second one in 1860, 18 years after the first – but his presence in the library is very well recorded. Lincoln frequently used the library as a spot for relaxation and mingling with friends while keeping up on the latest political news of the day. He made and strengthened many friendships within the walls of the library, spending great deals of time with such men as Ozias M. Hatch, the Secretary of State from 1857-1865, and State Auditor Jesse Dubois. Both men were leaders in Illinois politics whose names would be forever linked to Lincoln.59

As a lawyer and state legislator, Abraham Lincoln checked out the first book in the new Illinois State Library on Dec. 16, 1842.

As a lawyer and state legislator, Abraham Lincoln checked out the first book in the new Illinois State Library on Dec. 16, 1842.

The library also served Lincoln in a highly practical sense – political analysis of elections. Nicolay’s daughter, Helen, later wrote of the “records of the state elections, of which Mr. Lincoln was an eager and very shrewd student, reading indications of victory or defeat in apparently insignificant figures. He had frequent occasion to consult such tables, and often asked my father to bring them to him.” It was not the only time that Lincoln used the library to gain insight into the political leanings of the state. While running for the U.S. Senate as a Whig in 1854, Lincoln spent many evenings in the library researching Stephen A. Douglas’ position on popular sovereignty in the West. The Oct. 6, 1854, edition of the Illinois Daily State Register noted that Lincoln “had been nosing for weeks in the State Library, and pumping his brains and his imagination for points and arguments with which to demolish the champion of popular sovereignty.” Lincoln’s efforts produced a successful speech, which the Register happily reported was “the result of his wonderful labors and exertions.”60

U.S. Senator-turned-historian Albert Beveridge echoed those statements, writing that “for weeks, Lincoln had spent toilsome hours in the State Library, searching trustworthy histories, analyzing the census, mastering the facts, [and] reviewing literature of the subject.” Lincoln’s use of the library for research and study is reflective of the changing objectives of the library, as a repository for such activities by lawmakers and private citizens. Lincoln did not receive the senatorial nomination and eventually supported Trumbull, who had been the second man in charge of the library as Secretary of State a decade earlier.61

In October 1859, Lincoln was invited to present a speech in New York the following February 27 for a fee of $200. The ever-methodical Lincoln agreed to the invitation on the basis that he could make the appearance a political speech. For the rest of the fall, he spent countless evenings in the library, carefully researching what became the Cooper Union Speech, widely considered by Lincoln scholars to be one of his greatest lectures. The speech was a resounding success with the New York Tribune declaring that, “no man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.”62

The Cooper Union speech is credited with introducing Lincoln to east coast Republicans, who ultimately played a pivotal role in his successful Presidential bid later that year. Obviously, Lincoln’s research in the State Library the previous fall served him well in this episode. It would not be the only time Lincoln would use the library to prepare for a famous speech. On Nov. 13, 1860, a mere week after his election as President, Lincoln borrowed his second book of record from the library, Edwin Williams’ Statesman’s Manual, to use as research for his First Inaugural Address. Once more Lincoln did not sign for the book, asking Hatch, his close friend, to co-sign the library ledger instead. The First Inaugural also became one of Lincoln’s hallmark orations and is another link with the State Library.63

Like his father, Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, also used the room on many occasions. As a preparatory student at Illinois State University in Springfield (now defunct and a different entity from the current Illinois State University in Normal), Robert often checked out books under the names of Nicolay and Hatch, his father’s close friends. He withdrew a total of 29 books in 1858 and 1859. Like the rest of the general public, Robert had free use of the library, but borrowing privileges still belonged only to the lawmakers and judges. Among the works of fiction Robert borrowed were Frankenstein and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as books by Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and Washington Irving. His selections provide us with another glimpse into the reading tastes of educated Illinoisans in the period.64

The library also served as a studio when Lincoln used the room to sit for artists’ renditions, especially after his nomination as the Republican candidate for President on May 18, 1860. On August 16 of that year, the library became the site of the first sitting for a portrait in miniature on ivory by Pennsylvania artist John Henry Brown. The portrait, like many of the others that consumed the busy nominee’s time, was to be used as the basis for a campaign print. Brown’s benefactor ordered the artist to make Lincoln “good looking whether the original would justify it or not.” Lincoln himself was quite pleased with the end result, terming the likeness “an excellent one.”65

A bust of Lincoln was originally intended to adorn the library after his election to the Presidency. During the winter of 1860-61, artist T.D. Jones of Cincinnati sculpted Lincoln during Jones’ extended stay in Springfield. Leading citizens of the capital city requested State Treasurer William Butler to acquire a copy of the bust in marble for display in the Illinois State Library. Butler, himself a Sangamon County Republican, chose not to honor the request, wondering if “Mr. Lincoln should disgrace himself; what would we do with his bust?” No order for the bust was placed at the time, and only around 50 copies of Jones’ work were ever sold.66

When a century later, beginning on Feb. 7, 1966, the Old State Capitol was dismantled stone-by-stone before being rebuilt and restored, the bust found a home there. The building re-opened to the public on Nov. 15, 1969. During the reconstruction, Secretary of State Paul Powell became interested in the story of the bust and arranged to obtain one for the library as originally intended in 1861. The bust has since been moved to another location within the Capitol.67

Following Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865, the State Library also became a site for meetings on how to properly honor the fallen President. Just six days after his death, a committee met in the library to discuss the selection of potential burial sites for the President. The newly formed Lincoln Monument Association, charged with constructing a suitable tomb for Lincoln, often held its meetings in the library.68