50 States in 50 Days: Illinois – The “Land of Lincoln” – and Obama, Grant, and Reagan

Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché

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The “Land of Lincoln” has been the adopted home state of three men who went on to become president, including Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and our current president, Barack Obama. The one Illinois-born President was Ronald Reagan.

Illinois is the home state of President Barack Obama, and Chicago is his home city. His cabinet and staff reflect a strong connection to Illinois. As a native-born Chicagoan myself, I share the pride of many from Illinois to have one of our own in the White House. Obama was born in Hawaii, but began his professional career in Illinois and adopted it as his home state. He became a U.S. Senator from Illinois in 2004 and was a resident of Illinois at the time of his election to the presidency in 2008.

President Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961, to a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas.

After working his way through Columbia University in New York, President Obama moved to Chicago in 1985, where he worked with a group of churches to help rebuild communities devastated by the closure of local steel plants. He went on to attend Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. Upon graduation, he returned to Chicago to help lead a voter registration drive, teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and remain active in his community.

Barack Obama on the South Side during his first campaign, for the State Senate. Photograph by Marc PoKempner.
Barack Obama on the South Side during his first campaign, for the State Senate. Photograph by Marc PoKempner.

In a 2008 speech during his first presidential campaign, Obama reflected on how his work in Chicago had helped form his political and social views:

“When I hear the cynical talk that blacks and whites and Latinos can’t join together and work together, I’m reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters I organized with and stood with and fought with side by side for jobs and justice on the streets of Chicago.”

On November 4, 2008, Obama delivered his victory speech to a huge crowd of impassioned supporters in Grant Park in downtown Chicago. Among the notable people in the crowd were fellow Chicagoans Oprah Winfrey and Jesse Jackson.

The members of Obama’s cabinet (roughly equal to cabinet of ministers, although the U.S. officials are known by the title “Secretary”) and staff also display strong connections to Illinois. Secretary of State and former First Lady Hillary Clinton grew up in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is a former Congressman from Illinois. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a native-born Chicagoan and the former chief of the Chicago Public School System. And Obama’s first two White House Chiefs of Staff were both from Illinois: Rahm Emmanuel grew up in the Chicago suburbs and is now the mayor of Chicago, and William Daley is the son of Chicago’s legendary mayor Richard J. Daley.

Lincoln

As the nickname “the Land of Lincoln” implies, one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, also called Illinois his home state. Although he was born in Kentucky, Lincoln moved to Illinois at age 21 and worked as a lawyer in Springfield. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois, and lost a run for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, before going on to win the presidency in 1860. Lincoln is revered as one of the greatest leaders in U.S. history for his wise and determined leadership during the Civil War. He was simply known to many of his contemporaries as “the man who saved the union.” Although he was a life-long opponent of slavery, Lincoln did not start out as a radical abolitionist (a believer in the immediate end to slavery in all states). Instead, he promoted a policy of not allowing slavery to spread to new territories in the West, while encouraging the Southern states to let the institution die out gradually.

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, Lincoln’s goal was to preserve the Union, but as the brutal fighting continued, his position evolved and he became determined to end slavery. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the first step in the process of ending slavery in the United States. He was assassinated just a few days after the end of the Civil War in 1865. His contributions to U.S. history were immense, and the people of Illinois are still proud to call their state “The Land of Lincoln.”

Statue of "Young Lincoln" first dispalyed-published) 1945. Now in Senn Park, Edgewater Chicago.
Statue of “Young Lincoln” first dispalyed-published) 1945. Now in Senn Park, Edgewater Chicago.

Grant

President Ulysses S. Grant also called Illinois home. One of four U.S. presidents born in Ohio, Grant first joined the army (serving in the Mexican-American War) and then moved to Illinois as a shopkeeper. In a well-known story, Grant unsuccessfully ran a small shop in Galena, Illinois, and struggled with his excessive drinking until the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861 caused him to rejoin the army. After Grant achieved a series of stunning victories in the West against Southern forces, Lincoln chose him as commander of all U.S. forces. Although Grant could not match the military brilliance of his Southern counterpart, General Robert E. Lee, he was nonetheless a tenacious and aggressive general who deployed the superior manpower and material resources of the North with ruthless determination against the South. Lincoln famously said of Grant, in comparison to his previous, more timid commanders, “I can’t spare this man, he fights.” Grant personally accepted Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Grant won the presidency in 1868 as a resident of Illinois, and although he pursued humane and progressive policies toward freed slaves and native Indian tribes, his administration was marred by widespread corruption. Grant is remembered as a great general but a below-average president.

"On to Richmond". This painting depicts Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant on the field during the Battle of Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864
“On to Richmond”. This painting depicts Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant on the field during the Battle of Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864

Reagan

One other U.S. President had an Illinois connection – Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, and raised in the small town of Dixon, Illinois. He graduated from Eureka College in Illinois before moving to California to begin his career as an actor in Hollywood. Reagan later adopted California as his home state, serving as its governor before becoming President, but the people of Dixon still proudly remember and commemorate his origins there.

Ronald Reagan and General Electric Theater, 1954-62.
Ronald Reagan and General Electric Theater, 1954-62.
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2 thoughts on “50 States in 50 Days: Illinois – The “Land of Lincoln” – and Obama, Grant, and Reagan

  1. Please contact me at this email address regarding unauthorized use of my photo (registered with copyright office). Thank you.

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