Dr. Samuel Wheeler joins Community Voices to reflect on Lincoln's birthday and Presidents Day.
Randy: You're listening to Community Voices on NPR Illinois 91-Nine UIS. I'm Randy Eccles. Co-host Bea Bonner will be back soon. Today we have joining us Sam Wheeler. Sam, we we like to ask our guests to introduce themselves. Tell us a little about yourself.
Sam Wheeler: My name is Dr. Samuel Wheeler. I'm the former state historian of Illinois. Worked for years at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Springfield native, born and raised. I will be sticking around the Community for many years to come. In addition to being a historian, I'm a dad and I've got an eight-year-old little boy named Owen. He's in District 186, here.
Randy: You're a Springfield native and you're sticking around. We always like to get that that positive vibe. Why is it that Springfield keeps you tethered?
Sam Wheeler: Well, this is a it's my home. I've lived in a few different places along the way while I was in graduate school and starting out as a young professional but Springfield's home. This is where I grew up this is where my mom and dad are. This is where my brother, his family, my nieces nephews. My goddaughter is in the area, and where my friends and family live. I'm one of these people, that would say, "There's no place I'd rather be than Springfield, Illinois right now being around friends and family."
Randy: I found the same thing. I came to Springfield at the encouragement my sister who lives here. Having family and friends around is probably the number one thing to life satisfaction.
Sam Wheeler: What life's all about.
Randy: You're historian, is that your passion? What's your passion?
Sam Wheeler: My passion? Probably telling stories. Being around people and being a historian is one way I can do that. Going through school, I remember back to high school and certainly at university, it's what's your favorite class. What are your favorite classes? They always seem to be history. I kicked around different ideas. I started out as a psychology major, then a business major and I took an accounting class and I said, "My God there's got to be more to life than than crunching these numbers!" What is it that I liked? What gave me some satisfaction, what I did like doing was those history of classes. I liked researching. I liked writing. I liked to be able to distill information down and a narrative form with a purpose, and being able to communicate with folks. At the nub of it, that's probably why I chose to become a historian. There's a lot of history to specialize in and I sort of got into the Civil War era, American history. When I first started studying the American Civil War, I remember the feeling that I had and it was there was a lot of horrifying information to be had when studying the American Civil War to think about. Why, it was fought? How it was fought and how significant that period of history was. The American revolution created the nation, but in so many ways the American Civil War really settled what kind of a nation we would be. Out of that, Lincoln emerged as one of probably the most significant figures during that tragic era in American history. It seems strange for me to say this today, Randy, but I'm a historian from Springfield, Illinois that specializes in Abraham Lincoln. Believe me, it wasn't that cut and dry growing up, it was something very much after the fact. I had to sort of leave Springfield to learn about the Civil War and appreciate Lincoln. That's a little ironic, I think.
Randy: We hear that this is a similar time with divisiveness in the country. From what you just said about the Civil War, that sounds like that comparison might be a little overblown but what would be your perspective?
Sam Wheeler: Well sure, I mean we are living in historic times. Probably most of the listeners today, if we think about those touchstone -- moments in history that we've we've lived through -- some of your listeners probably remember exactly where they were when they heard about the JFK assassination. And my life, I remember exactly where I was on 911. That event still shapes our lives. All of us have lived through a very significant period of time over the last year. A global pandemic that has taken almost half a million Americans at this point is remarkable. I can say I never really thought that was a possibility and everything that goes along with the pandemic -- the isolation, being away from groups of people. It has really changed our everyday lives. Wearing our masks and in many ways, for some folks, going to the grocery store is taking a calculated risk these days. We never thought that would be possible. The civil unrest, the social unrest that's come along with the pandemic is significant, as well. When we have constitutional issues that we're dealing with as a society today, they're supposedly wrapping up the impeachment process for a former president, which is a very interesting moment in our history, so we're living in historic times. I dare say, so far, that these times probably pale in comparison to the Civil War, when you delve down into it. Just the scale that that war was fought on. If you didn't live in Virginia, for instance, or Georgia, if you weren't a witness to a battle, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say your life nonetheless was changed during the American Civil War. Estimates vary, maybe 620,000 soldiers somewhere between 620,000 maybe 750,000 soldiers perished. That was 2% of the American population in 1860. If we had a war like that today, that'd be something like 7 million of us would have served and not come back from that war. If you think about it on that scale, everybody knew somebody that served in the war, certainly was maimed in the war, lost a limb for instance, or never came home. There wasn't a community that was spared. If we think about beyond the battlefield, the repercussions of the war, the end of American slavery, thank goodness, finally came. The Constitution changed and, in many ways, the economies of the country changed in so many ways. The Civil War dramatically altered American life, sometimes for the better, but not all the time. It's always good to keep that in perspective but God forbid another calamity on that scale should ever befall us.
Randy: You talk about the historical moment we're in and, as you mentioned, an ex-president being impeached but also impeached for the second time. It's unusual. In Lincoln's era, Lincoln, after he was assassinated, his vice-president succeeded him but he was impeached also.
Sam Wheeler: Yeah, there's a there's a lot of a lot of history wrapped up in that. Abraham Lincoln, when he was elected president in 1860 his Vice President was not Andrew Johnson, it was a fellow named Hannibal Hamlet who was important for the ticket, in the sense that Mr Lincoln was elected from Illinois a far Western state back in the 19th century -- if we think about the map then. It was important to keep New England in the fold, so Hannibal Hamlin, former democrat, was put on the ticket for some balance. Then Mr Lincoln was re-elected in 1864 and it's an interesting marketing, interesting politics -- why party bosses drop Hannibal Hamlin from the ticket and instead chose Andrew Johnson, who was a democrat from a southern state, who had remained loyal to the Union during the war, served as a loyal member in Congress, certainly, and then as a military governor when the hostilities had broken out. For a lot of ways, folks in the Republican Party thought Johnson would be a wise choice. So again, it's another difference between the 19th century and today. It wasn't Abraham Lincoln choosing his vice-president. It was really party bosses, it was a their move -- perhaps above Lincoln -- that chose who his new Vice President would be. The Republicans even change their their name in 1864. They ran as the Unionist Party to try to get even some democrats to join their side. If you're for maintaining the Union, well my goodness, you've got to vote for the Lincoln and Johnson ticket. Lincoln and Johnson had corresponded during the war. I think it was a positive relationship as far as Lincoln saw it through the mails. He had respect for Johnson and his loyalty to the Union during the war but, when they met face to face, there's some evidence that the bloom was off the Rose so to speak. Johnson showed up by many accounts an inebriated at the inauguration. Gave a rambling, some say incoherent speech. They say too much whiskey. He says he just wasn't feeling good. It could be some combination of the two. Some sources say that Lincoln said something that day along the lines of, "Keep that man away from me," and the relationship was not a close one for the very short time that Mr Lincoln was still alive. Certainly,after the assassination, Johnson's presidency didn't turn out great. Johnson maintained that he was following Lincoln's plans for reconstruction but history would probably prove otherwise. That.Lincoln would have fought during reconstruction to make emancipation meaningful for the freed man. Johnson certainly had other ideas and ultimately his personality, as well as some of those policies, got him in hot water and, yes, he was a impeached.
Randy: Is it too much of a simplification to say that his removal of Stanton was what triggered it?
Sam Wheeler: Yeah, it's interesting when we think about impeachment. There's always a reason for impeachment. There's charges to be had, but we know the story is always much more complicated than that. There was not a rosy wonderful relationship. Then he removed Stanton without consulting Congress. Then they impeach him, it was a long road to it. That was sort of the last straw. Impeached but not removed from office -- narrowly escaped that fate.
Randy: We've got a similar process playing out, right now, and it's also the month of February -- both Lincoln's birthday and Presidents Day so we're talking right now on Community Voices with Dr. Samuel Wheeler who was former state historian -- current historian and we thought it'd be good to touch base and see how today and yesterday fit together when you think of Lincoln's birthday in the month of February. What stands out for you?
Sam Wheeler: Yeah, the month of February's a special one for American history. You've got Abraham Lincoln's birthday on the 12th you've got George Washington's birthday 10 days later. During our lifetimes we have this this holiday in the middle, that we call Presidents Day that has evolved into sort of a celebration of both Lincoln and Washington and it's a very appropriate combination, I think, in the sense that George Washington founded the nation. Probably the most important founding father -- I don't think that's a stretch. Not only for his role in the American revolution, but the Constitution as well as leading this country as a President and all the precedents that he set along the way. In Abraham Lincoln's lifetime, George Washington was the ideal statesman. George Washington's birthday was celebrated during Abraham Lincoln's lifetime, in fact, during the American Civil War, when he was particularly frustrated with General McClellan's lack of movement during the Civil War, he gave him and all Union officers the ultimatum that they had to move forward by Washington's birthday. That was the day, the line that he drew in the sand -- by Washington's birthday, which very significant, obviously. When Lincoln died, he's assassinated five days after Robert E Lee surrendered at Appomattox, it's a very Shakespearean, tragic ending to the American Civil War, to Abraham Lincoln's life. Assassination did a lot for Lincoln's legacy. He dies, it sounds ghoulish to say, but he died at the right time in his life, sort of at the peak of his of his power. He becomes, almost overnight, an American saint of sorts, and he is elevated in the American mind and ultimately worldwide to that iconic status on a par to George Washington. At his final funeral here in Springfield, folks walked into representatives hall to file past Mr. Lincoln's open casket and on the left hand side of the room in big letters it said, "Washington, the father," and on the right big letters it said, "Lincoln the savior." In a lot of the eulogies that went on around the country, a lot of the rhetoric, Washington and Lincoln were talked about on a on a similar scale. Washington founded the nation but Lincoln save the nation, saved the Union by keeping it together, keeping the American experiment and popular government functioning. It's interesting, they're born 10 days apart. We've got this great marketing holiday of Presidents Day but it's always good to stop, then think about that juxtaposition of Washington and Lincoln and remembering their contributions to American history in so many ways. If it weren't for those two -- their generations, what those Americans were able to accomplis, our world our lives would look so different today, even here in 2021.
Randy: As we look at Presidents Day, I believe it recognizes more than just Washington and Lincoln, but all presidents.
Sam Wheeler: Yeah, it's always good to think about Martin Van Buren on this day.
Randy: Not only Lincoln but also Grant, who was up in in Galena at the time, Barack Obama, and Ronald Reagan have some ties to Illinois. It does seem Illinois, for a western and at that time frontiers state, it seems like we have quite a few leaders that have come out of it.
Sam Wheeler: Yeah, a few years ago for the Illinois bicentennial or the 200th birthday celebration at the museum, I helped curated an exhibit called from Illinois to the White House where we recognize those individuals who rose from the prairie and became President of the United States, and you know by our accounting we had four of them -- Ulysses S. Grant did not spend a whole lot of time in Illinois but, my goodness, we claimed him anyway. He was here at the outbreak of the war. This is where he gets his first military commission for the civil war. Of course, Abraham Lincoln,. Ronald Reagan the only President born in Illinois. Then Barack Obama.We did a program with C-SPAN that year. Historians, ever since 1948 they rank Presidents according to greatness, and C-SPAN had come out with a book, and so they did an event at our museum, and so we got to discuss the exhibit and we got to discuss the presidential rankings. No surprise, Abraham Lincoln had had emerged as the number one spot amongst historians as the greatest president in American history. What was interesting to me, you know collate did a lot of these statistics and I was able to see that our four presidents that we claim, on average.C-SPAN ranked these presidents and I think it was nine or 10 different categories and our four presidents, we had the highest average ranking amongst any other state. There's other states that had four or more presidents that emerged from those states but, as I said that night is that we had four heavyweight presidents come from from Illinois that left behind, I think, very rich legacies. What is it about Illinois why did we achieve that status? I don't think it's just happenstance. I don't think it's just a coincidence. I think Illinois plays a really significant role in American history. We all are familiar with Chicago but really Illinois story does stretch from north, south, east to west here in the state. We're here in the middle of the country; we're a transportation hub. There is something to be said for, "If it'll play in peoria it'll play anywhere across the country." The policy, the problems that this country has faced over the last couple centuries, you can see those problems in a microcosm here in our state in Illinois and when our politicians emerge here in Illinois and they can find solutions to those problems here on the local level, more times than not, those solutions, those coalition's, those approaches are applicable to the national scale. We certainly see that with Abraham Lincoln he carves out such a complicated position on the biggest issue facing his generation, which was American slavery. Lincoln was not an abolitionist nor was he a pro slavery man. He said that there was never a time in his life in which he didn't hate slavery but yet in his mind it was impractical to call for the immediate end of slavery. He thought the Constitution protected slavery, where it existed in the south and so he staked everything on blocking its expansion across the continent into the territories and certainly into the North. That that complicated position was argued here on the streets of Springfield, Illinois during the Lincoln Douglas debates that's the argument that is showcased here in Illinois for a senate seat. Just two years later Douglas and Lincoln are two of the four candidates on the national level that battle it out for the President. Folks asked Lincoln after he was elected but before he took office in the winter of 1860-61, "Can you come out? Can you make a statement,?Can you call those states in the south down that are succeeding right now, assure them that you're not going to attack slavery." Lincoln said no, "I've said everything that I have to say. it's all in print." Those comments by and large were made here in Illinois. The other presidents that have come from here, the other prominent politicians that have achieved national success, more times than not, Illinois was their training ground here on the prairie.
Randy: Sam, I really appreciate you taking some time today to discuss Lincoln and presidents. Before we wrap up, is there anybody who is doing real interesting stuff in your perspective on Lincoln and the presidents?
Sam Wheeler: Oh, my gosh yeah, there's so many so many things that are taking place -- sort of new perspectives on Lincoln as as well as other aspects of American history but I'm a big fan of a fellow named Matthew Pinsky he's a has a book coming out called Boss Lincoln and I think that it will change the way that folks think about Abraham Lincoln in the sense that it talks about what a party politician and a party leader Abraham Lincoln was in the old Whig Party and then, when the Whigs collapse, everything that he did to ensure that the Republican Party would be successful and not be seen as a radical party -- really interesting. Matt is at Dickinson College and I'm a big fan of his work, always a fan of Harold Holzer and here in Springfield we've got one of the greatest Lincoln scholars of our generation in Michael Burlingame, certainly.
Randy: Well, thanks again, and is there anything else you'd like to let folks know before we wrap it up?
Sam Wheeler: I want to say happy Lincoln's birthday and happy Presidents Day to folks and to keep on keeping on because the rough times are going to get better and we just have to see this thing through, for the time being.
Randy: Thank you so much. That's Dr. Sam Wheeler, historian and former state historian, joining us today on Community Voices. We'll be back with more after this.