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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011 08:31 am

When Lincoln held office hours in Springfield

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This illustration from the Nov. 24, 1860, edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows Abraham Lincoln, as president-elect, greeting visitors in his borrowed office at the Old State Capitol.

When Springfield Mayor Mike Houston announced in July that he would hold regular open office hours, he was in good company. In 1860, after he became president-elect, Abraham Lincoln did the same, but his experience with Springfield office hours was quite different from Houston’s.

The mayor says he began the practice because “the average person in Springfield has a mindset that they can never talk to somebody (in city government) about something. So I wanted to set up time where anyone who wants to can come in, and they don’t need to have an appointment.”

Once a month, on a previously announced night, Springfieldians can go to the mayor’s office and talk to him for 10 minutes. So far, 50 people have done that. “They brought in legitimate concerns,” says Houston.

That wasn’t always the case for Lincoln, far from it sometimes. Instead of having an open office one evening a month, Lincoln had it every weekday for at least four and a half hours – while he was trying to assemble a Cabinet, determine how to handle slavery and the upcoming breakup of the union, among the many other tasks facing a new president.

Lincoln used the Governor’s Office at the now Old State Capitol. It was here that he greeted anybody and everybody between 10 a.m. and noon, and 3 to 5:30 p.m. “Each morning they assembled hungrily outside the Governor’s Room, lining up from the upstairs hallway down the State House staircase, sometimes spilling out the front door of the building,” wrote Harold Holzer in his 2008 book, Lincoln: President-Elect.

By mid-November, 1860, Lincoln was seeing about 160 people a day.

“His callers were of every sort: politicians offering advice on policy and cabinet assignments; journalists looking for exclusive stories or at least local color; artists who wanted to paint his picture; women who simply asked to shake his hand; country bumpkins who came to gawk; old friends from his New Salem days,” wrote David Herbert Donald in Lincoln.

According to various reports, Lincoln cordially greeted them all and urged them into his small office. If they were too shy to talk, he carried the conversation and lightened it with jokes and stories.

Some visitors weren’t fans. They dressed in crude, even dirty, clothes, sat silently and glared at Lincoln, according to Holzer. A journalist who chronicled Lincoln’s days during this time observed a group of rubes who crashed to the front of the line, yelled their names, touched the president, then ran away.

Lincoln was said to be happiest when friends from New Salem and his youth came to see him, but there might have been an exception. An old crone from Kentucky who’d known Lincoln as a youngster visited and announced, in front of Lincoln, that she didn’t think much of him as a child and was flabbergasted he’d become president.

Many callers wanted a job or favor, others wanted to get or give advice. Not all came empty-handed. Lincoln received gifts of all sorts: handmade chairs, soap, even a whistle made from a pig’s tail.

In late December, the governor needed his office back, so Lincoln moved out and saw visitors at home. “There was free access to him, not even an usher stood at the door,” wrote his secretaries, according to The Lincoln Institute’s website, “Mr. Lincoln and Friends.”

It’s no surprise that week after week of this tired the president-elect, who had trouble finding time for the nation’s real work. Friends and journalists said he looked worn down. Still, he continued to see visitors, even obnoxious ones.

Lincoln’s friend Henry Clay Whitney, an Urbana attorney, described some who invaded Lincoln’s home the month before he had to leave the city. Lincoln was trapped by “five or six exceedingly small bores, and one very disagreeable large bore: the latter trying to make himself solid with the prospective dispense of a large patronage, and all trying to air their shrunken wit for their self-aggrandizement… I never listened with greater impatience to an aimless drivel of small talk” (from Whitney’s Life on the Circuit with Lincoln).

In order to finish his Inaugural Address, Lincoln saw fewer visitors and escaped to his brother-in-law’s store to write it in peace.

He continued holding open office hours in the White House two or three days a week, according to James Cornelius with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. “Sometimes open hours did get canceled, and his staff gently suggested that he reduce hours whenever possible. The famous phrase from him in defense of the policy is: ‘These are my public opinion baths.’”

As the years passed and the Civil War raged, Lincoln diminished his open hours.

Contact Tara McClellan McAndrew at tmcand22@aol.com.

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