By IRIS NELSON
If only tables could talk. How a modest but elegant walnut hinged-leaf dining room table made the news around the turn of the century has elements of intrigue to local historians and the Historical Society where it is proudly displayed in the John Wood Mansion. A table of rare provenance once owned by a prominent Quincy couple was the focus of an account recorded in the Quincy Daily Journal on July 30, 1908. The table was loaned to the "arrangements" committee for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1908 and later purchased by the society. Why was this artifact important to planners of the celebration?
Direct connections to Quincy history and to its pioneer leaders and items they owned are valued links to bygone days. Such is the case with this well-preserved dining table that was owned by Orville and Eliza Browning, who lived in a picturesque mansion on the southwest corner of Seventh and Hampshire from the mid-1840s to the later 1860s. Browning came from Kentucky in 1831 and in 1836 married a Kentuckian from a similar social structure, Eliza Caldwell, and they settled into the Quincy community of less than 2,000 inhabitants. Orville Browning, who came to Quincy as a lawyer, successfully ran for Illinois Senate (1836-1840) and went to legislative sessions in Vandalia, the state capitol at the time. There he and Eliza spent time with a fellow legislator, Abraham Lincoln. He became a close confidante of Eliza Browning during the time in Vandalia.
Eliza had been well-educated in Lexington schools as a young woman and, although Lincoln was self-taught, they formed a quick and lasting bond of friendship. Historians suggest that Eliza was perhaps the first woman of social position and political importance that Lincoln got to know. It was through Eliza that a socially backward Lincoln experienced his first orientation to refined lifestyle patterns. Though from entirely different backgrounds, the two enjoyed a rich dialogue of storytelling, poetry, politics, wit and humor. Guess who later came to dinner in Quincy? One can imagine the splendid table repartee. If only that table could talk.
When Lincoln came here in 1854 to campaign for another Quincy politician, Archibald Williams, he dined with the Brownings in their home. Browning records this visit in his diary of Nov. 1. As near as we know that was the first time Lincoln visited Quincy and likely was a guest at the table, but it wasn't the last.
The reason the table was an attraction for the 50th commemoration of the debate was another occasion when Lincoln was a guest of the Brownings. At the time of the sixth Lincoln-Douglas debate on October 13, 1858, Eliza hosted Lincoln and several friends at a noon dinner before the gathering of partisan thousands in Washington Park at 2 p.m. Browning was out of town on court business, but the Browning mansion served as home base for the day. Festivities with fireworks lasted late into the evening and Lincoln stayed overnight at the home. It is this historic event that the 1908 newspaper article, highlighting memories of the lady who purchased the table at an estate auction in the early 1880's, focuses on. After Orville Browning's death in August 1881, household items were sold from the large home at Eighth and Sycamore Street where the Brownings had moved in the late 1860s.
The 1908 account relays a story that contradicts research about who in addition to Mr. Lincoln ate at the dining table on Oct. 13. The article relates, "On this historic day Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas were both invited to dine at the Browning home." The story indicates that Lincoln and Douglas sat at the table with the Brownings. Published details from 1858 newspaper accounts or other histories do not tell the same story. Lincoln and Douglas went their separate ways before the debate as recorded in the newspapers, and Orville was a court in Carthage.
Barely two years after the well-known debates, Abraham Lincoln was elected president and Orville Browning became U.S. Sen. Browning when he replaced Sen. Stephen A. Douglas after his death in June 1861. The Brownings had been well acquainted with leading members of state and national politics before they experienced life in the Capitol and at the White House.
The small table featured at the John Wood Mansion today was probably not the only dining table that the Brownings owned. They were frequent hosts for dinners and large parties. On Monday, July 5, 1875, Gen. William T. Sherman was visiting the Brownings and took part in the Independence Day celebration. A 2 p.m. dinner was held for Gen. Sherman, his son Thomas, two olonels from Sherman's staff, Gen. Morgan, Gen. Singleton, Col. Richardson, and five or six other gentlemen. The general and his son stayed with the Brownings that night. Browning relates in his diary that the general and he discussed public affairs in the evening. The table talk surrounded national affairs. For example, Grant's presidency, viewed by Sherman as a failure, was a topic discussed. When Browning asked Gen. Sherman if he would run for president, without hesitation, he said no.
Because the Browning's social structure reflected a genteel lifestyle transmitted from their Kentucky roots to Quincy, Orville and Eliza's social life has been charted and analyzed by historians using Orville Browning's diary. A list of frequent dinner and tea guests at the Browning mansion is enumerated in a book entitled "Provincial Lives: Middle-Class Experience in the Antebellum Middle West" by Timothy R. Mahoney. With such guests as Abraham Lincoln, Gen. William T. Sherman, numerous state and national figures and leading Quincy residents, a lifetime of scintillating table discussion at the Browning table can only be imagined. Visit the mansion to view the well-preserved table, a treasured antique in the Gov. John Wood Mansion. When you do you can better imagine the original setting of this fine relic and the Quincy pioneer couple who owned it.
Iris Nelson is reference librarian and archivist at Quincy Public Library, a civic volunteer, member of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Interpretive Center Advisory Board and other historical organizations. She is a local historian and has authored articles in historical journals.
The Browning Diary, Volume I and II.
Quincy Daily Journal, July 30, 1908.
Timothy R. Mahoney, Provincial Lives: Middle-Class Experience in the Antebellum Middle West (New York: Cambridge University Press), 1999.
Iris Nelson, "Eliza Caldwell Browning: Lincoln's Loyal Confidante," Journal of Illinois History, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 2006.