You’ve heard of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, maybe even memorized it. You might also know about his “House Divided” speech, his Cooper Union speech, and his two inaugural addresses. Yet some claim that Lincoln’s greatest speech wasn’t any of these, but rather one you’ve never read nor recited, for the simple reason that it was lost to history.
It is known simply as the “Lost Speech”, and it was delivered at Bloomington, IL on May 29, 1856 at an exceedingly tense and tumultuous time. Two years previous, the great slavery debate had exploded in greater furor than ever before due to Senator Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act. Up to that point, slavery had been contained in just one part of the country with the hope, and the expectation, that one day the nation might be rid of it entirely; now slavery would be allowed to spread into the west and even into the north, and we might never be rid of it.
This prompted an entire re-ordering of the political landscape. Prior differences between Democrats and Whigs over other issues moved to the background as the defining issue now became whether one was for or against Douglas’s bill. The Whig Party soon collapsed under the weight of the situation, and there emerged a movement to gather all the “anti-Nebraska” forces – i.e., all those who were opposed to the extension of slavery – into one political force, if not one entirely new political party.
By early 1856, a presidential election year, this movement was coalescing under the name “Republican”. The new party would hold its first-ever national convention in the middle of June in Philadelphia to nominate candidates and adopt a platform. State conventions were likewise called in many of the northern states; in Illinois, it was decided to hold the convention in Bloomington on May 29.
During the week leading up to the Bloomington convention, the tensions suddenly escalated significantly. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was brutally beaten on the Senate floor by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks in retaliation for Sumner’s speech denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, in which he also mocked Brooks’ cousin, Senator Andrew Butler; the outrage in the North was loud and strong, while in the South, Brooks was praised. Meanwhile, out in Kansas, the anti-slavery stronghold of Lawrence was ransacked by pro-slavery ruffians, and three days later a group of men led by John Brown retaliated by killing five pro-slavery settlers north of Pottawatomie Creek; “Bleeding Kansas” was well underway. And right here in Illinois, an anti-slavery editor named Paul Selby, who would have been one of the leaders of the Bloomington convention, was viciously attacked by pro-slavery sympathizers and now lay at home recovering from his injuries.
Amid all this tension, the Bloomington convention did its work, hearing speeches, nominating candidates, and adopting resolutions. Lincoln chaired the nominating committee for state offices and was named a delegate to the upcoming national convention – an honor he would have to decline because he had neither the time nor the money to attend – as well as a statewide elector-at-large for the Presidential election. But he was passed over for what he would have most desired: an opportunity to address the crowd.
As the convention drew to a close around 5:30 pm, however, many of the delegates and visitors were in no mood to leave, and a crowd of over a thousand men was still gathered in and around the hall. It was then that some of them started calling out for Lincoln. They may have only wanted some of his funny stories, but what he gave them instead was a rousing, hour-and-a-half-long speech.
The traditional story is that the speech was ‘lost’ because the newspapermen and others were so enthralled that they stopped taking notes. William Herndon, Lincoln’s friend and law partner, claimed that he “attempted for about fifteen minutes … to take notes, but at the end of that time I threw pen and paper away and lived only in the inspiration of the hour. If Mr. Lincoln was six feet, four inches high usually, at Bloomington that day he was seven feet, and inspired at that.”
It is just as likely, however, that Lincoln and other party leaders deliberately suppressed its publication, given that he directed his words to a highly partisan crowd. In an election year, it wasn’t the kind of message that would have been politically expedient to share with a broader audience.
But this doesn’t mean that the newspapers, as well as individuals, didn’t report on Lincoln’s speech. Herndon called it “full of fire and energy and force: it was logic; it was pathos; it was enthusiasm; it was justice, equity, truth, and right set ablaze by the divine fires of a soul maddened by the wrong; it was hard, heavy, knotty, gnarly, backed with wrath”. Editor ‘Long John’ Wentworth of the Chicago Democrat reported that “Abraham Lincoln for an hour and a half held the assemblage spellbound by the power of his argument, the intense irony of his invective, the brilliancy of his eloquence. I shall not mar any of its fine proportions by attempting even a synopsis of it.”
The only paper that did attempt a synopsis appears to be the Alton Weekly Courier, which reported: “Abraham Lincoln, of Sangamon, came upon the platform amid deafening applause. He enumerated the pressing reasons of the present movement. He was here ready to fuse with anyone who would unite with him to oppose slave power; spoke of the bugbear disunion which was so vaguely threatened. It was to be remembered that the Union must be preserved in the purity of its principles as well as in the integrity of its territorial parts. It must be ‘Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable’. The sentiment in favor of white slavery now prevailed in all the slave state papers, except those of Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri and Maryland. Such was the progress of the National Democracy. Douglas once claimed against him that Democracy favored more than his principles, the individual rights of man. Was it not strange that he must stand there now to defend those rights against their former eulogist? The Black Democracy were endeavoring to cite Henry Clay to reconcile old Whigs to their doctrine, and repaid them with the very cheap compliment of National Whigs.”
Lincoln’s primary objective seems to have been to unite all the disparate elements then coalescing into the new Republican Party, inspiring them to put aside their differences and commit wholeheartedly to the movement to fight against the extension of slavery. The increasingly violent slave power must be resisted, Kansas must be free, republican principles must be preserved, and the Union must be maintained.
In the judgment of Elwell Crissey, who wrote the definitive book on the speech in 1967, appropriately entitled Lincoln’s Lost Speech, only two brief quotes are unmistakably preserved. The first came near the beginning, when Lincoln was responding to an alarming appeal made by James Emery of Kansas, the final speaker at the convention, who had called for armed men to go to Kansas. Lincoln urged moderation and a different approach: “No, my friends, I’ll tell you what we will do. We will wait until November, and then we will shoot paper ballots at them.” Lincoln would return to this theme of “ballots, not bullets” in later speeches, including his July 4, 1861 message to Congress. The second well-documented quote came near the end, when Lincoln was speaking against the ‘bugbear’ of dissolution: “We say to our Southern brethren: ‘We won’t go out of the Union, and you shan’t!’”
Although Lincoln’s original speech was ‘lost’, I’m pleased to report that an audience at “Lincoln’s Festival on Route 66” in that very same city of Bloomington was treated to a re-creation of it this past Sunday! That’s right, I found everything I could about it and pieced together what I think is a reasonable facsimile, although abridged to about half an hour. With the introductory and concluding material, it made a nice hour-long program, which I am now offering to whomever wants to see it so that they might decide for themselves whether it really was Lincoln’s greatest speech ever.
Kevin J. Wood
July 28, 2018