In addition to the statehouse, a statue honors the sixteenth president. In 1928 a granite “Madonna of the Trail” was dedicated upon the public square to honor pioneer women, the memory of Lincoln, and the terminus of the pioneer National Road. It was one of twelve statues placed along the transcontinental National Old Trails Highway – the road was soon incorporated into parts of U.S. highways 40, 50, 350, and 66 – and each statue commemorates a different aspect of local history. Vandalia’s Madonna inspired great fanfare. Harry S. Truman, then a Missouri judge, was scheduled to speak but canceled at the last moment. The celebration and pageant parade went on apace, and my father and his sister are among the young “Indians” in the panoramic photograph of the celebration.
How many small town histories could be written about a courthouse and a statue on the public square? For me, I have never been able to disassociate Lincoln from the small town ambiance in which I first encountered him. Striding confidently forward, children in her arms and tugging at her dress, her long skirt clinging to her striding leg like that of a Greek goddess but her (stone) sunbonnet looking—so I thought as a boy – a little too much like a German helmet: the Madonna looks out toward the West as if meeting some bully’s challenge on Gallatin Street as surely as Lincoln stood up to the “Clary Grove boys.” Lincoln’s name was the name I saw on Illinois license plates; his was the face on the brown-and-white Lincoln Heritage Trail signs which ran along U.S. 51 and Route 185; his was the face on the penny which I placed in downtown parking meters; he was the great president honored by Vandalia’s Little Brick House museum which I visited on grade school trips; he was the hero whose home we visited by traveling U.S. 66. There was even a plaque to Lincoln in the city park where I played as a boy, for the pioneer road from Vandalia to Lincoln’s Springfield ran there. Cars with out of state plates parked in downtown Vandalia as tourists visited the statehouse. Every downtown drug store and restaurant sold postcards with the famous full-face November 1863 portrait of the president. Before it burned in 1969 the downtown Hotel Evans contained a mural depicting Vandalia as capital, with Lincoln and Douglas in the painting’s foreground, their height differences notable. Postcard renderings of this mural can still be purchased locally. I still purchase Vandalia postcards, as if I was a tourist who means to send them, as if I don’t know those scenes by heart.
Once, in one small town, I discovered an ancient historical marker that called attention to a Lincoln visit. I surmised that a state or U.S. route had once been aligned through that very old, shady and isolated neighborhood, and that motorists looking for a mom and pop cafe or a picnic table might have stopped in front of the plaque and had their pictures taken. But in Vandalia, no plaque is needed; the old capitol reminds us each day that the greatest president began his political career here. (Lincoln’s visits to Vandalia in 1856, which would have earned an historic marker in any other town, have been largely forgotten locally.) The young man Lincoln walked the same streets as the shoppers and business people and the teenagers who traipse around looking for something to do on a dull, hot summer day. If he came to town… today, he would come downtown on U.S. 51 and 40. We call him “Abe” (a name he himself disliked), even if local accents run the name together into “A. Blinkin.”
Most of all, we think of Lincoln as the man who jumped from a statehouse window. It is Vandalia’s most tenacious legend-one I’ve heard all my life. When I began to haunt the history stacks of the library, I discovered the facts behind the legend. Lincoln’s jump happened on December 5, 1840, one and a half years after the state capital had been moved from Vandalia to Springfield. The house of representatives was meeting in the Springfield Second Presbyterian Church until the statehouse was finished. House democrats sought to adjourn the assembly sine die in order to force the whig-controlled state bank to resume redemption or close. Learning of the plot, house whigs resolved to prevent a quorum. But when the democrats managed to gather a quorum—and blocked the doors to prevent exit—Lincoln and at least one other man jumped from a window. The drop was not long. Lincoln regretted his impulsiveness and was greatly embarrassed by the ensuing, mocking publicity.
Why this incident became a Vandalia legend is not known. As locally told, Lincoln leapt from a window of Vandalia’s statehouse in order to break a quorum on a vote to keep the capital at Vandalia. No newspaper or any other documentary evidence exists to prove a previous jump at Vandalia; Lincoln surely would not have twice opened himself to public ridicule. Likewise the top-floor windows of the statehouse are too high for Lincoln not to have broken something besides a quorum; but no such injuries are known in Lincoln’s well-documented life. Yet by the early 1900s a Vandalia jump was locally accepted as fact. An glass ashtray in my possession advertises the Hotel Evans as being “across from where Lincoln jumped.” I have other brochures and folders that say the same thing. Tourists often accosted a friend of mine who worked at the Evans. He enjoyed teasing them, “Yes, you can still see Lincoln’s footprints where he landed,” and occasionally faced their accusing disappointment, “We couldn’t find them!” My friend was in the minority in making light of the story. Many Vandalians, claiming descent from eyewitnesses to the leap (myself included), are protective of the legend and scold those who would debunk the story. Furthermore, a happy reenactment of the leap, using a window frame set upon the ground, was part of Vandalia’s recent 175th anniversary celebration.
One Lincoln scholar criticized the legend of the Vandalia jump. I agree with his concern to the facts of the case but not with his criticism. For like the more famous New Salem stories, the Vandalia legend demonstrates very well the symbolic power Lincoln still exerts over upon American consciousness—and the ability of Lincoln stories to define a community. Vandalians are deeply proud that Lincoln served in his first political office there, proud that tourists come frequently to inquire after the greatest president, proud to actively preserve his memory. The fact that Lincoln helped secure the state capital for Springfield has not diminished that local pride in the least, even though the legend may be a collectively unconscious way that Vandalians can, in effect, humanize the nation’s hero. I grew up in the shadow of the old statehouse and believed, correctly, that Lincoln was as human as you and I. After all, he walked this downtown too-and as anyone can tell you, he jumped onto it.
(This essay originally appeared in Springhouse magazine and then in my book Journeys Home: Thoughts and Places, self-published in 1995 and 2000. Thanks to Michelle for transcribing!)