Lincoln, Stevenson, and Obama

The heartland is where history converges

Untitled Document One reason Barack Obama chose the Old State Capitol as the site where he would launch his presidential campaign is the reason it was built there in the first place: It is at the center of the state, in a town of good, honest people. In 1837, soon after Springfield was chosen as the new capital, a Chicago newspaper wrote: “We congratulate our friends at Springfield on the selection of that place as the future seat of government, a selection known as judicious from its central position and for the public spirit and enterprise of its inhabitants.”
One of those good, honest people of Springfield, with whom Obama wants to be associated, is known to be more honest than the rest. Abraham Lincoln was nervous about the speech he was to give to the Republican state convention, meeting at the Capitol on June 16, 1858, so he showed it to some friends, who were aghast. They said that his rhetoric about a “house divided” would be political suicide.
“The time has come when these sentiments should be uttered,” Lincoln replied, “and if it is decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go down linked with the truth — let me die in the advocacy of what is just and right.” Afterward, when newspapers said the speech sounded like a call for civil war, Lincoln backpedaled faster than Joe Biden: “I am much mortified that any part of it should be construed so differently from any thing intended by me.”

The appeal of the heartland was best articulated by presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who addressed a rally at the Old State Capitol on July 28, 1952, two days after he had accepted the Democratic nomination for president. “Here, on the prairies of Illinois and the Middle West, we can see a long way in all directions,” he had said when he welcomed the Democrats to Illinois. “We look to east, to west, to north, and south. Our commerce, our ideas, come and go in all directions. Here there are no barriers, no defenses, to ideas and aspirations. We want none; we want no shackles on the mind or the spirit, no rigid patterns of thought, no iron conformity. We want only the faith and conviction that triumph in free and fair contest.”
That Obama is a fine writer, as Stevenson and Lincoln were, bodes well for his candidacy. What John Steinbeck wrote in a foreword to a collection of Stevenson’s speeches applies to the current candidate: “A man cannot think muddled and write clear.” In contrast to the inarticulate Dwight Eisenhower, Steinbeck said, Stevenson was “intelligent, humorous, logical, civilized,” and “durable.” Though he doesn’t get to run against Bush, Obama’s intelligence appeals to Americans weary of muddled leadership.
What Obama wants to convey at the Old State Capitol is not just that we in the middle of the Middle West are more levelheaded than others, but also that this place is where the roads of history cross. That was true in the 1850s, when Lincoln and Douglas faced off here over the expansion of slavery, and in the 1950s, when Stevenson faced right-wing extremists and the nation was bogged down in a civil war in Korea. “Great, restless forces are at work,” Stevenson said. “The corners of the earth feel the ferment.” The world will be watching to see how Obama identifies and addresses the great, restless forces of today. Stevenson didn’t win, but his losing campaign set a new mood for America politics. “It is better we lose the election than mislead the people,” he said. The governor from Lincoln’s state is remembered for the words that began his uplifting campaign. “Let’s talk sense to the American people,” he said. “Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of . . . a long, patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the great enemies of man — war, poverty, and tyranny — and the assaults upon human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of each.”
If he’ll listen to the ghosts of Lincoln and Stevenson, Obama will do well at the Old State Capitol on Saturday.
Contact Fletcher Farrar at

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