Lincoln's time in Vandalia

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By The Staff

This Thursday evening, beginning at 6 p.m., we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln in grand style at the old state capitol in Vandalia.

Although Lincoln belongs to the nation and to the world beyond, there was a time when Abraham Lincoln’s world was Vandalia.

The newly elected legislator arrived in Vandalia by stage on a blustery November day, squeezed in with the other five members of the Sangamon County delegation, including his mentor, John T. Stuart.

Lincoln was not impressed with the village as he saw it in 1834, and no wonder. The statehouse was a makeshift affair, partially fashioned out of the burned-out hulk of the state bank building, once the most impressive building in the capital city.

In use by the general assembly since 1823, the floors sagged 7 inches, the walls bulged and a crack extended up the north wall. Conditions were so bad the local church people refused to hold services in the building, afraid it would fall down around them.

One year after Lincoln’s arrival, German traveler Frederick Gustorf visited Vandalia. He, too, was not impressed.

Gustorf, in his journal, said: “The town, which has a population of 800, according to Peck’s Gazetteer, has not changed since it was founded 15 years ago. The houses, about 100 in all, stand on a very broken soil, and since most of them are log cabins, the whole scene is dark and depressing.

“One can see about five or six big frame buildings containing stores. The Statehouse is a common brick building. A solitary bank, a wooden church with a small tower and two or three state offices complete the community of Vandalia.

“The river is shallow and not navigable. The only facility near the river is an old sawmill, and the river is spanned by two log bridges.

“Both sides of the river are swampy to the edge of the forest, making the climate very unhealthy in the summertime. One can see signs of ague and other diseases on the faces of the people.

“The Vandalia Inn, where I spent the night, was airtight and the bed was free of bugs. I paid $1 for the room and three meals.”

Abraham Lincoln also boarded at the Vandalia Inn, located on Gallatin Street, and it was here he met Eliza and Orville Hickman Browning. Their friendship would endure through the White House years, and it was Eliza who would be summoned to the White House when Willie Lincoln died from typhoid. She remained with the family for several days, helping to care for son, Tad, who was also ill.

While living in Vandalia and attending sessions in the second capital building, Lincoln received his license to practice law on Sept. 9, 1836.

Mary Burtschi, in her writings, told of Vandalia being Lincoln’s "classroom." He watched, listened and learned from other members of the house and senate.

Lincoln made his mark in Vandalia with his first public protest against slavery on March 3, 1837. With Rep. Dan Stone of Sangamon County, he signed his name to the following, “…the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils.”

When he was nominated for president, Lincoln proclaimed that this protest made in Vandalia still manifested his stand on the slavery issue.

Make plans to be at the old state capitol this Thursday evening to honor our 16th president. The crystal chandeliers will be aglow, and President Lincoln, with his wife, Mary, will be on hand to greet you.