Why Didn’t Abraham Lincoln Travel?

Abraham Lincoln as a tourism driver is nothing new – history buffs have been making pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., Gettysburg and Abe’s Midwestern stomping grounds for decades, and Springfield, Ill., attributes the majority of its annual $350 million tourism and convention business to the rail-splitter. But actually following in Lincoln’s footsteps doesn’t take a traveler very far.

Lincoln never crossed an ocean, a curiosity that clashes with what we might expect given his means, his intellect and Mary Todd Lincoln’s famous taste for the finer things in life. Despite the difficulties of international travel in the mid-19th century, it wasn’t unheard of. William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, made it as far as the Middle East on a fact-finding mission. Benjamin Franklin had darted back and forth between the American colonies, England and France 100 years earlier.

It’s understandable that Lincoln was too preoccupied to travel during his presidency. Still, it’s a bit surprising that by his death in 1865, he hadn’t ventured farther than New Orleans, New York or Missouri.

Leisure travel to Europe wasn’t a popular concept in Lincoln’s time. “It would have been dangerous, for one,” says Dale Ogden, a senior curator at the Indiana State Museum who oversees a significant collection of the Lincoln family’s belongings. “And Europe was in turmoil anyway.”Domestically, the railroads that Lincoln worked for as a lawyer weren’t yet popular options for vacation. Even the train that took the president-elect from Springfield to D.C. on his Whistle-Stop Trip in 1861 wasn’t exactly posh. “Lincoln’s car would have been private as opposed to luxurious,” Ogden says. “I don’t think it would have been particularly unpleasant to travel by rail in 1860s, but it wouldn’t have been even remotely close to what it became 20 years later.” Instead, Lincoln “vacationed” at his summer home in D.C.

Yet travel made a serious impact on Lincoln’s life, an aspect examined in “The Lincolns: Five Generations of an American Family,” an exhibit that recently opened at the Indiana State Museum. He was frequently on the road on horseback as a circuit attorney in Illinois, and the job separated him from his eldest son, Robert, during the child’s formative years. Ogden says this is a primary reason why Lincoln and Robert didn’t have a close bond. “Lincoln was a workaholic,” he says. “The fact that he did travel so much, because of his work, had a major role in the family dynamic.”

The museum holds one of the most comprehensive collections of Lincoln artifacts, and “Five Generations” is only the second exhibit organized from its contents. A few of Mary’s travel accessories, including her opera glasses and ostrich fan, are currently on display, highlighting her trips to Europe after Lincoln’s death.

[Photo credit: Paukrus via Flickr]