I’ve been hearing about it at work for about two weeks.
Just little barbs and jabs. A few references here and there. Snarky asides, glare in the eyes as they call me out.
But I’ll stand by what I said, may god or man judge me how they will: “Land of Lincoln” is a terrible state slogan.
I am second to none in my admiration for Abraham Lincoln. And as a proud Illinoisan, I feel nothing but a patriotic swell in my chest knowing the land I’m from gave rise to the political career of a man I consider one of, if not the, greatest leader our nation has ever sired.
But in terms of making it the official state slogan, having it on the license plates, typifying the identity of a vibrant and diverse state of 12.9 million people through one admittedly great man who died before dynamite was invented, “Land of Lincoln” falls somewhere between “Virginia is for Lovers” and when North Dakota decided to call itself “The Peace Garden State” because they split a park with Canada in terms of terrible, terrible official slogans.
It starts with a fact.
1. He’s from Kentucky.
If you look at the other “Lands of” in state claims — Enchantment (New Mexico), Opportunity (Arkansas), 10,000 Lakes (Minnesota) — they’re all claiming the thing is from there. It might not be true. I’ve never had the chance to be enchanted in New Mexico or to count the lakes in Minnesota. But that’s what they’re claiming.
Abe Lincoln didn’t even show up in Illinois until he was 21. He was born near Hodgenville, Kentucky, and spent the first seven years of his life there before spending the next 14 in Indiana. And, in case you missed that day in history class, he spent his last few years out east, in D.C., as president of the United States.
Yes, he spent 30 of his 56 years in Illinois, but that’s not how “Land of” is normally used. The national anthem doesn’t claim the free are really from Canada but spent a good deal of time here. The Dead weren’t actually from the sea. The 1986 Genesis hit off the multi-platinum “Invisible Touch” album “The Land of Confusion” is not implying confusion was birthed in some other land but built its legal practice and a solid political base in this one.
“Land of Lincoln” is a mushy, meaningless nothing because the facts didn’t allow for a “Birthplace of” or “Home of.” Every time you see the slogan, you should read it as “We’d Make a Real Claim if We Could.”
2. It’s a little suspect when a state so renowned for political corruption bases its entire rep on the last politician most people have a generally good feeling about.
“What about the governors who went to-”
“We’re the Land of Lincoln.”
“Well what about the historic mob ti-”
“Hey, Land of Lincoln right here.”
“You do know that voting in this state is-”
“And for a state with such endemic segrega-”
“Shh shh shh. Shhhhhhh. Liiiiiiincooooooooln.”
3. It’s just weird to link your whole identity to one guy.
Do you know what Nazareth — as in “Jesus of” — is known as? “The Arab Capital of Israel.” Not even the Christ’s boyhood home is treading on legacy as wantonly as Illinois.
“Illinois: That Guy You Like Lived Here Once”
“Illinois: 12 Million People, One We’re Proud Of”
“Illinois: Coastin’ on Abe Since ‘Our American Cousin’”
Going back to state slogans, only two others reference individual people, and neither of them by name. North Carolina has “First in Flight” because that’s where the Wright brothers flew; Ohio has “Birthplace of Aviation” because the Wright brothers designed the plane there.
“As I have said before, North Carolina can always claim the location of the first flight by the Wright brothers, but it is their hometown that saw the laborious construction and endless testing that was required to allow it to take to the sky and mature as a reliable form of transportation that we all now enjoy,” Rep. Dave Hobson (R-Ohio) argued before Congress in 2003.
As stupid as it is that Congress was arguing about this less than three months after we invaded Iraq, at least they were arguing based on fact. They divvied each state up by what the Wright brothers did there, not just claimed the whole state as Wright Land and put it on the license plates forever.
4. There are better claims to make.
Calling Illinois “Land of Lincoln” today is like if Burger King discontinued the Whopper 157 years ago but still had it on the sign.
I say this not having high standards for state slogans. Most are claims about the terrain (Big Sky Country, the Sunshine State) or the populace (the Show-Me State, Live Free or Die). They’re usually pretty facile (Pure Michigan), but even the Wright brothers ones were based on pride in a region’s contributions. “Land of Lincoln” is just trying to create a vague, squishy connection in people’s minds between a beloved leader and a broke, scandal-ridden region he started his career in.
Let’s look at some other nicknames we’re ignoring:
- “Prairie State.” Perfectly good nickname. The prairies are mostly farmland and subdivisions now, but who’s counting how much of New Jersey is still garden?
- “Inland Empire.” I always liked this one.
- “Corn State.” New to me, but we should be proud of our agriculture. I want to popularize “Big Soy Country” myself.
- “Baja Wisconsin.” This means some Cheesehead was playing around with Wikipedia.
5. Move on. He did.
On Feb. 11, 1861, a day before his 52nd birthday, Abraham Lincoln boarded a train in Springfield to depart for his new role in the nation’s capital. He spoke to the gathered crowd these words.
My friends – No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
Abraham Lincoln loved this land, and we still love him today. But there’s a difference between honor and parody, between making a man’s memory sacred and turning him into a mascot.
We’re the Prairie State, the Inland Empire, Big Soy Country because I’m still putting that one out there. It’s a thinker, y’know?
But calling ourselves the “Land of Lincoln” is a surrender of a name. It’s telling the world the last thing we could find to be proud of about ourselves boarded that train and left a century and a half ago.