“A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”
— Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858, in a speech at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
I've always been a T-shirt guy, probably because it was my standard uniform growing up in northwest Iowa, a white T-shirt and Levis blue jeans. But even more so after my retirement. There's nothing more comfortable than a 100-percent cotton T-shirt.
So on a trip to Springfield, Illinois, last week with my father-in-law and brother-in-law to visit the Abraham Lincoln Museum, we stepped into the gift shop and I almost bought a T-shirt with the above message on it. But alas, it was priced at $30, a bit steep for a piece of cotton, I thought, even though I support the museum itself.
I've been to the museum three times now, and it never gets old. I learn something new every time I go. They have so many exhibits they regularly switch them out, so it never gets stale.
But I almost bought that T-shirt because it seems to exemplify where our country stands today — deeply divided, at least politically.
To some people, President Donald Trump is a dangerous joke, maybe even a Russian pawn, as well as all the other negative things he wears on his sleeve daily. To others, he can do no wrong. He's simply working to make America great again and stop other countries from walking all over us.
Even after the disastrous press conference following the private Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki, Finland, polls showed 80 percent of Republicans inexplicably still support Trump, a higher percentage than President George W. Bush two weeks after 9/11. If that doesn't show the deep divide in this country, I don't know what does.
If you haven't already visited the Lincoln Museum, it's well worth a day trip, and a really eye-opening experience in history. It typically can take three hours or more to visit all the exhibits and watch two short videos about Lincoln, one of them a remarkable hologram that includes a live actor. (They have seven of them who take turns playing the role.)
One display illustrates the political factions at play just prior to and during the Civil War, which consumed Lincoln's entire first term in office. The first shots in the war occurred at Fort Sumter near Charleston, S.C., on April 12-13, 1861, that resulted in the U.S, Army surrendering the base to the Confederate Army. That was barely a month after he had been sworn into office.
Political cartoons in the major U.S. publications at the time depicted Lincoln as an ape, a monkey and a gorilla, among other varieties of animals. He was vilified for his opposition to slavery.
More than 600,000 Americans died in the War Between the States, and hundreds of thousands more were maimed and injured. One map exhibit is startling, showing the casualty count by battle in four minutes, with each second representing one week of the war.
One exhibit shows a slave market, with a gnarly, white trader pulling a family apart as they are sold separately to different slave holders. As I studied the terrified faces of the slave family, a young black girl stepped up and began to explain to her younger brother what he was looking at. I can't imagine what those two young people were thinking as they looked at that scene.
The late television journalist Tim Russert did several short “news” clips about the Civil War as though it were taking place in modern times. The one I saw last week was about the campaigns of the four candidates for president in 1860, and their political messaging, when Lincoln won his first term in office on the strength of northern abolitionist voters.
People always talk about how serving as president quickly ages men, and there is a series of four pictures of Lincoln that illustrate that fact succinctly. He looks like he has aged 15 to 20 years in just four years, with good reason.
Of course, when he was martyred by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865, shortly after the war ended and he had been elected to his second term, the die was cast. He would be immortalized in the American consciousness forevermore.
But the museum doesn't pull any punches. Lincoln was a complicated, brilliant politician and statesman who suffered from depression but also was a great storyteller. He and his wife, Mary, suffered the loss of three of their four sons to disease before they reached adulthood. And, of course, Mary also witnessed the violent death of her husband.
So if the country could survive that tragic, despicable chapter in its history, it surely can survive the chaotic presidency of the current administration, no matter how it turns out. That's the overarching lesson I learned from my most recent visit to the museum. And that positive reaction alone is well worth a visit to Springfield, which is only two-and-a-half hours from Burlington.
Maybe I'll go online and order that T-shirt after all to remind myself that this is an incredibly resilient country despite the damage any one president can do.
Randy Miller is a retired city editor for The Hawk Eye. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.