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For the past week, we have been working full steam to decorate the Vandalia Statehouse for the upcoming Christmas season. Coming up this Saturday is the annual Open House from 5-8 p.m., when we throw open the doors, and the first 100 families to sign the guest book receive a free ornament.
Organizers are asking visitors to bring a can of food for the local food drive that is going on.
The historic building will be lit with more than 200 candles, and tours will be given by costumed guides. Friends of the Vandalia Statehouse, in conjunction with Girl Scout Troop 382, will serve light refreshments.
This is always an exciting time for us at this state historic site. Not only did Abraham Lincoln live in Vandalia from 1834 to 1839 during legislative sessions, but William Hamilton, son of Alexander Hamilton, lived here while he was secretary to Illinois’ second governor, Edward Coles.
Lafayette was supposed to come to Vandalia but stopped at Shawneetown instead, and several esteemed gentlemen from Vandalia, James Hall included, traveled to Shawneetown to welcome the general.
Peter Cartwright also lived in Vandalia during the time he served in the legislature, and boarded at the tavern of John and Elizabeth Thompson Wakefield at the same time that Lincoln did. A letter preserved in the Wakefield family tells of discussions between the two legislators that would attract visitors because of their heated debates. Invariably, it was written, Cartwright would turn red in the face while Lincoln remained more laid back.
As an interpreter at the Vandalia Statehouse, there is a wealth of known history to share with our visitors. However, the unknown is intriguing, too. Much happened within the walls of this historic building that we do not know about, and the personalities who made Vandalia home for the months of the legislative session were many.
Enter Archibald Williams of Quincy, a self-made lawyer from Kentucky, who would become Lincoln’s fast friend. Williams was said to have had a physical resemblance to Lincoln, and rivaled him in homeliness.
Williams dressed so shabbily that once a hotel clerk, noticing him slouched in a lobby chair, questioned him whether he was a guest of the hotel. Williams replied, “Hell, no! I am one of its victims. I am paying five dollars a day!”
The Long-Nine came out in support of Williams for state senator, but he finished third, with Richard M. Young, former representative and circuit judge, declared the winner.
Young hosted a celebration at a Vandalia inn, and the usual diet of wild game gave way to a more sumptuous fare. As the spirits flowed, so, too, did the spirits of Stephen A. Douglas and James Shields, who climbed upon a cluttered table and performed a lively dance. The next morning, Judge Young paid $600 for supplies and breakage.
A visiting clergyman wrote home that Vandalia was a scandalous place, much in need of reform, and that church members should be more circumspect in their choice of legislators.
It will be remembered that it was James Shields who challenged Lincoln to a duel over the "Aunt Becca" letters. This was not the first time that Shields was observed dancing on a table. As good humor turned to resentment and anger over a bill, it was Shields who jumped to the rescue by dancing a little jig on his desk and broke the tension.
Usher Linder of Coles County was a thorn in Lincoln’s side in Vandalia. He opposed moving the capitol and later introduced a resolution calling for an examination of the State Bank at Springfield by a House committee.
On any committee, a majority would be Democrats, unfriendly to the bank, and Linder hoped to put the bank in such jeopardy that Springfield would yield her claim to the capital rather than lose the bank.
There is one report that during a legislative session that Lincoln chastised his fellow legislators for wanting to break the legislative session to take a Christmas holiday by saying to the effect that the men who voted to put us in these seats do not get the day off, nor should we.
The men who served in Vandalia were a lively lot, well educated for the most part, and through their guidance the ship of Illinois’ state was brought through the first formative years of Illinois statehood.
Please join us this coming Saturday evening, won’t you, as we share the beauty and history that is the Vandalia Statehouse. After all, it belongs to you.