Lincoln ~ A Tall Gaunt Man

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

Abraham Lincoln Hillsboro Illinois
Abraham Lincoln Statue In Clay sculpted for Hillsboro Illinois - Photo by: Nancy Slepicka

Half way down main street stands an old pine tree which is believed to be the oldest living thing in town. An aged resident of Montgomery County, a ninety-four-year old Civil War veteran, told this story shortly before his death:

When I was a young man, I went to Hillsboro to attend the Academy where I also had a job with Dr. Hillis. His office was not far from the old pine tree and on warm nights, while waiting for the doctor to come in from visits to the sick, I would sleep out in the yard under the tree. At that time the tree was fully grown. Main Street was just a country lane, dusty in summer, and hub deep with mud in winter. This old tree has seen Main Street change into one of the busiest thoroughfares in the county. It has seen schools and churches spring up, and generations come and go. It must have seen a tall gaunt man on horseback riding slowly along on his way from Springfield to the Capital building at Vandalia.

Abraham Lincoln frequently stopped in Hillsboro and vicinity. The old Seward farm, on State 127 south of Butler, was a combination inn and stage stand where travelers refreshed themselves and stage drivers replaced tired horses with fresh ones for the stage run. George Seward used to point out one of the rooms where Lincoln slept. He said Lincoln drove up one evening in an old rattle-trap buggy with a hole in the dashboard through which one of his long legs was sticking, and without saying a word got out and began to unhitch his horse. Another favorite stopping place was the Blockburger Inn, which stood at the corner of Main and Tillson streets.

Newspaper accounts of Lincoln furnish interesting sidelights on the political situation when Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were making speeches in Illinois. Of the appearance of Judge Douglas in Hillsboro on August 2, 1858, the Montgomery Herald said:

Above the fairground gate entrance was fastened a canvas on one side of which was printed “The Union can exist half slave and half free,” and on the reverse side was “Douglas, the champion of popular Sovereignty.” The crowd continued to pour in at one o’clock headed by the brass band and proceeded to the grounds through a cloud of dust that was almost suffocating. James M. Davis made a few remarks and gave way for the speech of Mr. Rice in the reception of Mr. Douglas. Mr. Douglas then addressed the people for about an hour and a half. We have heard his speech both praised and ridiculed.

An excerpt from The Herald of September 3 of the same year calls attention to Lincoln’s speech:

Our readers are well aware of the day Mr. Lincoln is to address the people of Hillsboro, namely the 9th inst… It will also be seen that the same day has been chosen for the exhibition of Spaulding and Rodger’s Circus. We learn that an arrangement has been made by which Mr. Lincoln is to speak inside the canvas of the circus at 1 ½ o’clock P. M.

The Montgomery County Herald, previously edited by John W. Kitchell, an editor neutral in politics, was sold in September, 1858, to A. N. Kingsbury. In the issue of September 10 Kingsbury came out in favor of Douglas. The following story of Lincoln’s address in Hillsboro reflects the new editor’s loyalty to the Little Giant:

At Hillsboro on the 9th. Mr. Lincoln devoted the greater portion of his speech in proving that the Dred Scott decision placed it beyond the power of the people in the territories to exclude slavery therefrom. Mr. Lincoln asserted here in Hillsboro that “there is a physical difference between the Negro and the white man, that would forever prevent them from living together in a state of social and political equality.” This decision is in direct conflict with a part of the gentleman’s Chicago speech in which he said “Let us discard all these things and unite as one people throughout the land, until we shall once more stand up and declare that all men are created equal.” In contrast with the above we place the declaration from Mr. Lincoln’s Hillsboro speech. We understand that Mr. Lincoln is instructed to declare at Jonesboro “that a Negro is no better than a horse.” The graduating scale from Chicago to Jonesboro will then be complete according to the latitude.

And on November 12, 1858, Mr. Kingsbury wrote that “Old Abe has become extinguished, and the star of Douglas shines brightly, and in 1860 we intend to make him President.”

John M. Whitehead in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society gives a delightful picture of Lincoln and Douglas in Hillsboro:

In the Lincoln-Douglas campaign both men made speeches in Hillsboro. As I remember, Mr. Lincoln spoke in September. There was a circus in town that day and the committee having charge of the Lincoln meeting chartered the “Big Top” and Mr. Lincoln delivered his speech from the circus wagons. The reason for this was the rain. I remember him standing in the wagon in the circus ring. My father had taken me in the forenoon to the place, the old lyceum, where other citizens had congregated to meet Mr. Lincoln, so I had a very distinct impression of him which has remained with me all my life.

My father used to tell of the first speech he heard Mr. Lincoln make in the old log courthouse at Hillsboro. A political meeting was being held and one of the well known men of the day was talking. At the conclusion of his speech a call for Mr. Lincoln came from the crowd. Presently a tall, awkward, homespun sort of a young man began to make his way to the front. He finally reached the desired position and proceeded to make a speech. The time was “wayback yonder,” perhaps in one of the exciting campaigns of the 40’s.

The Sangamo Journal of July 25, 1844, verifies the courthouse speech of Lincoln with: “delegates from Sangamon county to the mass convention, left this city on Monday morning of last week, were treated with the utmost hospitality going and coming. Delegation escorted into Hillsborough and the citizens assembled at the courthouse. Addresses were made by Judge Robbins, Mr. Lincoln and Dr. Anson G. Henry.”

Writing in the Illinois State Journal of Lincoln’s message in 1858, a Hillsboro resident who signed his name “Absalom” said: “It continued to rain a perfect torrent during the whole time of the speaking. The seats and pits were packed full of men who hoisted their umbrellas and stood until the last word was heard. At the close, cheer after cheer was given and a thousands hats were thrown into the air in token of the principles and soul of our own Abe Lincoln.”

The letter from Absalom drew the ire of editor Kingsbury, who wrote on September 24, 1858:

Lincoln’s contortions and grimaces did create some laughing among the children and boys because they thought it a part of the circus. A special committee on cheering had been appointed composed of fifteen persons, and they joined in manfully and appeared to enjoy the antics of their champion as much as the boys.

Continuing his recollections of Lincoln and Douglas Mr. Whitehead wrote:

There were a number of citizens of Hillsboro who were life long acquaintances of Mr. Lincoln. Joseph T. Eccles was a Kentuckian of the fine old type who had known Mr. Lincoln from his youth up and was one of his trusted advisers in this part of the country. I remember one cold Sunday morning at the Presbyterian church I went to Sunday School and there were gathered around the stove Mr. Eccles and others who were interested in what he had to say about his visit to Washington from which he had just returned.

I remember my father asked Mr. Eccles if “old Abe” knew him. Mr. Eccles had a very heavy voice and a prolonged chuckle when he laughed. He laughed and said, “Know me? I guess he did. He took care of me at the White House in the old fashioned way.” I do not recall all the details of the conversation except that Mr. Eccles was extremely pleased with his visit to Washington and with the President.

The Judge of the Circuit Court was E. Y. Rice, a Kentuckian of the old school, who had been long acquainted with Mr. Lincoln and associated with him in professional activities, though opposed in politics.

The village tavern stood two blocks from my father’s home where all the lawyers were wont to put up when they come to Hillsboro to the term of court. I remember distinctly many times seeing the members of the bar sitting out on the porch or in the street with their feet propped up against posts swapping stories, and Lincoln was often among the number. Among these lawyers were General John M. Palmer, U. F. Linder, Anthony Thorton and many others.

Mr. Douglas, when he spoke in Hillsboro, spoke briefly from the roof of the tavern porch and he could be distinctly heard at my father’s home. He had a marvelous voice. His principal speech was made in the afternoon at the Fairgrounds.

On the morning that the news came of Mr. Lincoln’s death, I was going with my father and the rest of the family from our farm west of town to Hillsboro to attend the funeral of a relative whose body was coming in on the morning train from the southwest. One of our neighbors was on his way home wearing the blue swallow tail coat with brass buttons, buff vest and silk hat of the style then worn by the old fashioned gentlemen. He stopped and told us the news of the President’s death. His name was Mr. Cory. He had been a life long Democrat and politically opposed to Lincoln but his voice was thick and his whole frame shook with emotion. My father whipped up his horses and hurried on into town hoping against hope that later news would not bear out the earlier reports of the morning that the President was dead: but alas, the daily papers came in from St. Louis about the middle of the day and we had to know that the President’s earthly career was ended.

There was a meeting at the Presbyterian church the following Sunday evening to commemorate the life and public service of Mr. Lincoln. The old fashioned church was packed to the doors. There was some formality in the opening of the meeting but presently the opportunity was given to any to speak from where he sat in the congregation. No experience in my childhood stands out more distinctly in my memory than my recollection of that wonderful meeting. One after another, the old men arose some with tears streaming down their faces, and with trembling voices expressed their love and admiration for the dead president and more particularly for the man whom they had known so familiarly for so many year. I particularly remember the remarks of Mr. Stickel, one of the guests in our home on the date when Mr. Lincoln spoke in the circus tent.

On the day of Mr. Lincoln’s funeral in Springfield business was generally suspended in Hillsboro. Public services were held in one of the churches and the people came from far and near to show their respect for the great dead. It has always been a matter or deep regret to me that I was not required by my parents to accompany them to the memorial services. Some childish whim beset my mind and I did not care to go and I was not required to go; and so all my life I have felt a sense of loss on this account.

There was a very bitter partisanship in our part of the state. Many bitter things were said after Mr. Lincoln’s death which resulted in the severance of lifelong friendships and business relations, but there is no part of the country with which I am familiar where the memory of Abraham Lincoln is today more tenderly cherished than in Montgomery county.

Taken from: Hillsboro Guide 1940

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