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Scott Reeder: Lincoln’s life reflected state’s contradictions

February 8, 2019

SPRINGFIELD — Tuesday is my birthday, and it’s also Abraham Lincoln’s.

If you grow up in Illinois sharing a birthday with our state’s martyred saint, expect to be thoroughly indoctrinated in Lincoln lore.

When I was a kid, I read every Lincoln biography in the school library, had a picture of Honest Abe thumb-tacked to my bedroom bulletin board and could rattle off Lincoln trivia the way other boys could recite baseball statistics.

When I was 8, I wanted to go to Gettysburg — not Disney World.

Other states have nicknamed themselves after their crops, heritage or natural attributes.

Illinois, on the other hand, is the only one that identifies itself with a person — thanks to state Sen. Fred Hart, of Streator, who in 1955, sponsored legislation designating the state as the “Land of Lincoln.”

Here in Springfield, Lincoln has been given almost messianic qualities — Preserver of the Union, Liberator of the Slaves.

In many ways, Lincoln is the glue that holds together the state’s identity.

I’ve visited 47 states and lived in six. Of all of the places I’ve been, Illinois’ seems the most lacking in pride. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a nice place to live. It is just that our identity is more fragmented.

Symbols are an important part of identity. Texas has the Alamo. Pennsylvania has the Liberty Bell and Colorado the Rockies.

And Illinois? Well, we have Lincoln.

Ask a Texan where she’s from and she’ll say “Texas.”

Ask the same question of an Illinoisan and you more than likely will hear: “Chicago,” “the suburbs” or “downstate.”

Illinois has long been a divided state with a political heritage that would make Al Capone blush.

And culturally, the divide is even greater. Folks in the northeastern part of the state live a life more akin to residents of New York City than their compatriots in Galesburg, Moline or Alton.

Deep Southern Illinois feels similar to rural Kentucky. Central Illinois has a culture akin to that of Indiana or Iowa. The civic glue that binds the state is weak.

But Lincoln has become the touchstone that joins Illinoisans. His life reflects the contradictions of our state.

His most famous act — the Emancipation Proclamation — was the classic Illinois political move.

It freed slaves only in areas controlled by the Confederacy — but not in areas under Union control.

It looked high-minded and statesmanlike. But the proclamation’s immediate value was as a public relations ploy.

Secretary of State William Seward said, at the time, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”

An Illinois politician motivated by public relations rather than public policy?

Tell us it is not true.

More than 150 years after Lincoln’s death, much of what happens in Springfield still has more to do with perception than reality. Look no further than Mike Madigan, Rod Blagojevich or Bruce Rauner.

But somehow, I don’t think history will be as kind to them as it is to Lincoln.

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