ST. LOUIS---We've come here after visiting Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield, Ill. He was a successful railroad lawyer during the 1850s and his wife, Mary, born into wealth, was pleased with her parlor in fashionable black, a sitting room with the cherrywood furniture she liked, separate bedrooms since he was often restless at night and she had migraine headaches, and upstairs bedrooms for children and a maid.
Was Lincoln satisfied with wealth and the apparent end of his political dreams? One of his closest friends said his ambition was "an engine that knew no rest," so I doubt the guide's story that Lincoln had to think long and hard before accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. When I did some writing about Lincoln in the 1990s I learned that his Springfield life was far from idyllic: Mary, wielding a knife, once chased him down the street.
When looking at the American past, both the right and the left tend to prefer mythology to history. The recreated blocks of Lincoln's neighborhood are peaceful, but small Springfield during his time had 28 saloons. Patrons became so obstreperous that while the town needed only two policemen to patrol by day, nine were needed each night. That era had its own problems of drugs, disease, and family dissolution.
Government mismanagement is also nothing new. Another town on Route 66, Carlinville, Ill., has a courthouse designed in 1867 as a $50,000 project paid for by bonds and taxes. By the time builders completed it in 1870, the cost of what had become maybe the second largest courthouse in the country (after one in New York City) was $1.3 million: It took 40 years for Macoupin County taxpayers to pay it off.
Now, of course, we talk of billions and trillions, and often don't want to acknowledge the depth of our debt. Can we stand the truth? Many of us are like the fatalist in a Lincoln joke who chases a squirrel up a tree leaning over his cabin and discovers the tree to be hollow. For days he worried about what to do: Left alone, the tree will fall on his cabin and crush it, but an attempt to cut it down will probably lead to the same result. His conclusion: "I wish I had never seen that squirrel."