Can you imagine a United States of America where slavery is still in practice? Can you envision a country divided into the Union and the Confederacy? Had Abraham Lincoln not been our nation’s 16th president, these might still be a reality today.
Bloomington-Normal was where Lincoln was inspired to reach for that office. “Bloomington-Normal is the most significant city in Lincoln’s story,” says Guy Fraker, a local Lincoln expert who wrote Lincoln’s Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit and served as a consultant on the WILL-TV documentary Lincoln: Prelude to the Presidency. “Lincoln is the savior of democracy. Bloomington-Normal shaped the greatest leader that democracy has ever had.”
Lincoln made his first visit to Bloomington-Normal in 1837 when he was a lawyer on the eighth judicial circuit. During this time, he met two residents who would not only become his close friends, but the most important political backers in his quest for state and national office: Jesse Fell and David Davis. Fell was a businessman who later founded Illinois State University, while Davis was a lawyer who would became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.
According to Fell’s recollection, in 1858 he spotted Lincoln coming out of the McLean County Courthouse (which is now the McLean County Museum of History) and invited him to the law office of his brother, Kersey Fell. The office was located on an upper floor of 106 W. Washington St. on the south side of the courthouse square, above what is now a women’s clothing store.
“At that meeting, Fell told Lincoln he should run for president,” says Fraker. “He told him he should write a biography so people across the country could get to know him.” Initially skeptical, Lincoln turned it in a year later.
As the election grew closer, Lincoln was not a front-runner for the Republication nomination. Fell and Davis were the ones who went to the Republican National Convention in Chicago and secured him the nomination.
Lincoln occasionally stayed at Davis’ mansion in Bloomington, Clover Lawn. A new mansion was built in the 1870s, which is today open for tours as the David Davis Mansion. It’s a rare glimpse into the daily lives of a wealthy Victorian family, an opportunity you shouldn’t miss. There you’ll meet the family and their servants and hear stories about Bloomington during Lincoln’s time here. The mansion also hosts many annual events, including Lincoln’s Birthday Celebration, Christmas at the Mansions and the Glorious Garden Festival. Fun fact: there is a letter written by Lincoln addressed to Clover Lawn on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield.
Bloomington’s Looking for Lincoln Tour offers you a chance to walk in the footsteps of the man himself. You’ll see the places where he stayed, practiced law and visited during his time in Bloomington-Normal.
Bloomington-Normal also has the perfect souvenir for your Lincoln adventure. The McLean County Museum of History is now a part of the National Park Service Passport Program, which allows visitors to record their adventures by receiving a cancellation stamp in their National Park Service Passport at each Looking for Lincoln site they visit. The passport can be purchased at several Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area sites. The cancellations, like those received in an international passport, record the name of the passport community and the date it was visited.
If Lincoln were alive today, he surely would have been an attendee of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. He kept a copy of the Bard’s completed works on hand in The White House. “Shakespeare transformed Lincoln,” says Fraker. “His favorite play was Macbeth.” It’s easy to understand why Lincoln connected more deeply with a tragedy over one of Shakespeare’s comedies. His alleged first love, Ann Rutledge, died of typhoid and two of his sons passed away before they reached their teenage years.
Each year, the festival performs Shakespeare’s plays and those written in his spirit. You can enjoy behind-the-scenes tours, live jazz music, ice cream socials with the cast and crew and nightly green shows.
Each summer, Lincoln’s Festival on 66 gathers together people throughout Central Illinois who feel a shared sense of pride in the area’s deep connection to our 16th president. Each of the ten locations that host the festival feature a different activity. You’ll experience Civil War re-enactments, traditional craft demonstrations, talks, tours and more.
In 2018, 158 years after Lincoln’s last visit to Bloomington-Normal, our connection to him is stronger than ever. Walking around town today, it’s easy to picture Lincoln going about his day: walking down the steps of the McLean County Courthouse, bent over his paperwork in his office, tipping his famous top hat in greeting to a stranger. His speeches and policies made America what it is today, but without us, he might never have been elected.
When you visit us, you’ll visit the land that helped shape Lincoln.