An Interview with Michael Burlingame regarding the Lincoln Cottage Project

An Interview with Michael Burlingame regarding the Lincoln Cottage Project

Sara Gabbard:  What is the “Lincoln Cottage?”

Michael Burlingame:  Lincoln’s Springfield Cottage (not to be confused with the Lincoln Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C.) is a replica of the Lincoln Home that the family moved into in 1844 (namely, a six-room, one-and-a-half story cottage) and before a second story was added in 1856, transforming the modest cottage into the twelve-room Home we know today.

SG: When was it originally built?

MB: 1839


SG:  When did the Lincoln family acquire it?  From whom?

MB: They bought it in 1844 from the Rev. Charles Dresser, who two years earlier had presided at the wedding ceremony of Abraham and Mary.

SG:  Please describe the interior.

MB:  A parlor, a sitting room, a kitchen on the first floor and two bedrooms in the sleeping loft above.


SG:  How long did the Lincoln family live there?

MB: They lived there from from 1844 to 1856, when it was expanded into a two-story, 12-room house, where they continued living until 1861.


SG:   Please tell our readers about the project to reconstruct this home.

MB: The project got started last March, when I suggested to some friends in Springfield that visitors to the Lincoln Home received a misleading impression of the family’s domestic environment, for they lived much longer in the twelve-room house open to visitors today for only five years, whereas they had lived in the modest six-room cottage that it was before it was expanded with the addition of a second floor. I thought it would be enlightening for visitors to enter a replica of the house before that second story was added. My friends were enthusiastic about the idea, and so last spring an ad hoc committee of the Abraham Lincoln Association began exploring the possibility of creating a replica of the six-room cottage. The committee has been busy since then, making plans, hiring an architect, raising money (goal: $400,000), and procuring letters of endorsement from national leaders like Senators Durbin and Duckworth as well as Congressmen LaHood and Davis, local governmental officials like the mayor and city council, civic organizations, and leading Lincoln scholars from around the country, among them Allen Guelzo, Douglas Wilson, and James Oakes. So far we’ve raised over half of our $400,000 goal, have obtained an option on a lot, employed an architect, and consulted the archeologist of the Lincoln Home (who is a member of the committee) as well as landscape architects. We have good reason to believe that the National Park Service will incorporate the Cottage into the Lincoln Home National Historic Site park.

When I suggested the idea to a friend who had worked as a tour guide at the home a generation ago, he wrote saying that “at least half of the people who toured the Home entered and immediately expressed their shock (and a little dismay) that Lincoln, whom they learned about as the simple prairie lawyer, actually was ‘so affluent’ and lived in such a grand home.” My friend had “to explain that people were seeing it as it looked in 1860 and to describe how the Lincoln Cottage originally looked and was expanded. I thought, even back then in the 1990s, that if visitors could see the original six-room Cottage and understand the Lincolns’ life within that context as well as within the 1860 twelve-room Home context, they would have a much more complete picture of the Lincolns’ actual life in Springfield.” The former tour guide added that a replica of the modest cottage “would shed immense light for visitors on the Lincoln family as a whole, and its dynamic. The Lincoln children were raised — and one died —in the small Cottage; Mary Lincoln held teas and sewing circles there; Abraham Lincoln, a young and relatively anonymous lawyer and politician came home from his office or from politicking to his young family in his small house and dreamed big, mature dreams.” The “replica would immensely expand the teaching and learning about the most important years of Abraham Lincoln’s life.”

The replica of the Cottage could be used for receptions, classes, lectures, meetings, and a variety of other functions, unlike the Home. It will be located a few steps south of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, a little over a block from the Home.

The National Park Service website for the Lincoln Home National Historic Site rightly notes that Abraham Lincoln believed that all Americans “should have the opportunity to improve their economic and social condition. Lincoln’s life was the embodiment of that idea.”

The Lincolns’ Springfield Cottage Project will illustrate vividly how Lincoln “improved his economic and social condition.” The Cottage on the northeast corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets that he bought in 1844 was much smaller than the Home that is open to visitors today. In 1856, the Cottage was expanded by the addition of a second story, transforming a six-room abode into a commodious twelve-room house that was, as contemporaries noted, “superior in appearance to those in the immediate vicinity,” for it now rose “considerably above the level of the street” and dwarfed “by its great height and size, the adjoining dwellings.”

That expansion symbolized the rise of the forty-seven-year-old man who had arrived in Sangamon County a quarter-century earlier as a self-described “strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy,” who worked as a jack-of-all-trades (boat hand, laborer, clerk, merchant, postmaster, surveyor, farmhand), studied law on his own, passed the bar, worked at first for other attorneys, then established his own firm, and ultimately prospered. The year before he was elected president, he told an audience in Wisconsin: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is free labor—the just and generous and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” He knew whereof he spoke.

At the heart of Lincoln’s political philosophy was his emphasis on what has been called “the right to rise.” In 1861, while in Cincinnati en route to Washington for his inauguration, he told a group of German workingmen: “I hold that while man exists, it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind.” Months later, he defined the Civil War’s international significance: “it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

As an active member of the Whig Party in his twenties and thirties, Lincoln championed policies designed to end rural isolation and poverty, thus allowing people like those with whom he had grown up to ascend the social and economic ladder as far as their talent, industry, ability, and virtue would take them. As a Republican in his forties and fifties, he expanded the scope of his sympathies to include African Americans trapped in a system that did not allow them to rise.

The National Park Service website further states: “We know Lincoln as the sixteenth president but he was also a spouse, parent, and neighbor who experienced the same hopes, dreams, and challenges of life that are still experienced by many people today.” Indeed, visitors to the Home are curious about Lincoln’s personal life, which comes alive within the four walls of that house. But to some extent, visitors are misled by what they see. To be sure, they can observe the domestic environment of Lincoln’s family during its final five years at Eighth and Jackson, but they cannot as easily appreciate what life was like for that family during the preceding twelve years, when their quarters were far more cramped. It is well known that Lincoln’s marriage was troubled, and that he often sought refuge from scenes of marital discord in his nearby office or out of town. It is difficult for visitors in Springfield to imagine how little space each member of the family had within the narrow confines of the Cottage. The pressure-cooker atmosphere created by its tight quarters doubtless exacerbated family tensions.

Visitors to the Cottage can better appreciate how difficult it was for Mrs. Lincoln to adjust to life in such a small domicile, so different from the large, comfortable Kentucky home she had grown up in, or the elegant house of her older sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards on Springfield’s “Aristocracy Hill,” where Mary stayed from the day she came to Illinois in 1839 to the day she married Lincoln in 1842.


SG:  Where can more information be found?

MB:  On the website of the Abraham Lincoln Association, click here


Michael Burlingame currently serves as President of the Abraham Lincoln Association.