One hundred and fifty years ago this month, Abraham Lincoln paid his first and only visit to Evanston. To a city now so political, visited by Barack Obama possibly half a dozen times on his ascent to the Senate and the White House, such a stop might seem a non-event, but in historical context, it says much.
In April, 1860, Evanston was a small town with streets of dirt, the ink barely dry on its charter from the State of Illinois, the paint practically fresh at the one-building school daring to call itself a university. It was only three decades removed from woods and wetlands known mainly to Indians and a trader named Ouilmette. Yet in the 30 years after the second Treaty of Prairie du Chien, over 800 people settled in this place nestled between swamp and lake. The founding of Northwestern and Garrett Biblical Institute, the platting of a town by the school’s founders, and the linked opening of a rail stop had combined to spur a small boom. Still, something more than real estate speculation had created a buzz about the place.
The most persuasive research places litigator Lincoln in Chicago the first week of April, having just won what would be his last lawsuit, a wrangle over land formed by a sand bar where the Chicago River met the lake. Already known for his debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln had just ratcheted up his national renown with a widely-quoted and re-printed speech at another spanking new college, the radical free-tuition Cooper Union in New York, and was increasingly touted as presidential timber for the upcoming Republican convention. Sufficiently famous that he was asked to sit for a bust sculptor on April 5th, he instead chose to honor an invitation from his old friend Julius White, who sat on the Chicago Board of Trade with Orrington Lunt, to visit the town where White now lived. Joking to the sculptor that it would be a boring evening of talk with “college professors,” Lincoln postponed his portraiture.
Lincoln took the train up to Evanston. After a carriage ride through town, he arrived at White’s house, then on the northwest corner of Ridge and Church where the YWCA now stands. The house, one of the first in the area, had been built by Alexander McDaniel, who had sold it to Rev. Philo Judson.
While Lincoln socialized inside, word of his arrival spread. Despite lacking telephones, to say nothing of Twitter, a crowd measuring by some accounts half of Evanston gathered on the lawn, and began to bang on pans, toot on horns, and chant until Lincoln deigned to come out and deliver a speech from the front porch, and then patiently shake a multitude of hands. The remainder of the evening was spent in refreshments and song around the parlor piano, along with a high-spirited contest to measure Lincoln against the tallest men in Evanston.
Lincoln would never visit here again. Six weeks after his visit, he would be nominated for president; by the following spring, Ft. Sumter would come under attack. Yet he apparently remembered the evening fondly; during the war, with the Eighth Illinois Cavalry encamped near Washington, Lincoln, visiting the troops, recognized officer James Ludlam of Evanston, who had sung at the piano while his future wife, Isabel Stewart, accompanied. Ludlam was several times invited to the White House, and on at least one occasion was asked by Lincoln to sing some of the same songs that had entertained the gathering at White’s.
Then, as now, Evanston had already developed a reputation as a center of political and moral thought. Besides the colleges and the town’s celebrated ban on alcohol sales, Evanston was a center of abolitionist activity; the Evanstonian who escorted Lincoln by train from Chicago was Harvey B. Hurd, an outspoken anti-slavery activist and associate of John Brown.
On a planet millennia old, 150 years is a mere blip, but as a round number exceeding any of our tenures here, a milestone worth noting. The rapid evolution of this area in 30 years, from marshes to an intellectual center that could draw a future president, reminds us how rapidly change can occur, as does the fact that, less than a year from Lincoln’s visit, half a dozen states would secede.
Over the next six years, our republic will observe countless sesquicentennials of that unprecedented rift and its bloody resolution, including the tragic curtailment of Lincoln’s own life. As we witness, daily, high passions on today’s issues, it is altogether fitting and proper that we think on the past, both on what happens when we practice the politics of division, and what memorable things can occur when we call upon our loftiest ideals, such as those that brought Abraham Lincoln and so many Evanstonians together that evening in April of 1860.