Lincoln at Peoria
The Turning Point
Getting Right with the
Declaration of Independence
by Lewis E. Lehrman
Lincoln at Peoria Lewis E. Lehrman
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Lincoln At Peoria › Read an Excerpt

Lincoln at Peoria tells the tale of a hardworking lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, at a political turning point in 1854. Admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1836, having served four terms in the state legislature and a single term in Congress (1847–1849), Abraham Lincoln had substantially withdrawn from politics between 1849 and 1854. During these five years, his Springfield law practice prospered. Traveling often by horse and buggy, he became a well-respected litigator on the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Illinois. Then in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, one of the most explosive congressional statutes of American history, burst upon the Illinois prairie. This congressional statute repealed the 1820 prohibition of slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska territory. The repeal inaugurated a new stage in the slavery debates of the early American Republic. In response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln launched his antislavery campaign with crucial speeches at Springfield and Peoria, Illinois, in October. These speeches and their consequences are the subjects of this book.

In 1854 Lincoln was little known. Now a vast library records the words and actions of Lincoln's life. More has been written of the sixteenth president, perhaps, than any historical figure but Jesus of Nazareth. The narrative of this Lincoln volume has only a limited scope, taking its place in the vast world of Lincoln scholarship. Thus, there is no claim here to consider more of the Lincoln story than the period suggested by the title of this book. The crucial issue of black slavery in America is considered primarily as it bears on Lincoln at the turning point in 1854. There is little space to note the remarkable extent to which black Americans, living here as slaves ten generations before the Civil War, resisted slavery and created their own freedom—even before emancipation. Mr. Lincoln believed black Americans were entitled to the inalienable right to liberty, and to the fruit of their own labor. He also came to believe they would fight for their freedom. Of this he was confident, earnestly believing that “all men are created equal” and wished to be free. And Lincoln was right. That stalwart African Americans joined the Civil War armies to free themselves might not have surprised the Lincoln who appeared in Peoria to give his speech on October 16, 1854—seven years before the Civil War.

Students of Abraham Lincoln know the canon of his major speeches—from his Lyceum Speech of 1838 to his “Final Remarks” delivered from a White House window, days before he was assassinated in 1865. The Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural are brief and timeless. Some works are nostalgic such as the eulogy for Henry Clay in 1852. Before them in the 1830s and 1840s, there are speeches of the younger Lincoln on the high road and some on the low road. Later came monumental masterpieces, such as the “House Divided” speech of 1858 and the Cooper Union address of 1860. There are the extraordinary debates of 1858 with Senator Stephen A. Douglas. In contrast, there are the short, impromptu speeches of modest substance given on his way to Washington in 1861. The president's public letters in mid-1863 to James C. Conkling and Erastus Corning read like well-crafted speeches. The First and Second Inaugurals spell out President Lincoln's interpretations of the causes and consequences of the Civil War.

Less well-known are the speeches given at Springfield and Peoria two weeks apart in 1854. They mark Lincoln's reentry into the politics of Illinois and, as he could not know, his preparation for the presidency in 1861. Historians and biographers have noted their importance, but they have not received the full study they merit. These Lincoln addresses catapulted him into the debates over slavery which dominated Illinois and national politics for the rest of the decade. Lincoln delivered the substance of these arguments several times—certainly in Springfield on October 4, 1854, for which there are only press reports. A longer version came twelve days later in Peoria. The Springfield remarks did not survive, but by preparing them meticulously for publication, Lincoln made sure the text from Peoria endured.

By his research and editorial care Lincoln made clear his respect for the historian's record. I, too, respect the historian's record. Scholars and teachers have taught me what I know of the American saga. I am deeply in debt to them. Still, I am not a scholar. My full-time vocation has allowed me irregular hours to research, study, and write, but I have tried to adhere to the traditional standards of historical scholarship. Thus, this book—a labor of love, in the works for more than two decades—has taken needed inspiration from dedicated teachers of our history. In this study I try to let the exact words of Lincoln himself, of his contemporaries, and of six generations of scholars tell the tale. They speak very well for themselves. The admonition of my graduate school teacher still rings in my ears—let readers make up their own minds from the evidence on the record, and from different interpretations presented by witnesses and scholars. I have tried to apply this principle, especially in the straightforward historical narrative of chapters I through III. My own judgements of the momentous issues at stake, of the rival ideas and leaders of the 1850s—are more transparent in chapters IV through IX.

Lincoln himself was suspicious of biography and history, according to William Herndon, his law partner of sixteen years. Herndon reported that Lincoln, perusing a biography of Edmund Burke, observed: “Biographies as generally written are not only misleading, but false.” Lincoln pondered a while and added: “Billy, I've wondered why book-publishers and merchants don't have blank biographies on their shelves, always ready for an emergency; so that, if a man happens to die, his heirs or his friends, if they wish to perpetuate his memory, can purchase one already written, but with blanks. These blanks they can at their pleasure fill up with rosy sentences full of high-sounding praise.”1 Though difficult to uphold, I try in this book to follow Mr. Lincoln's admonition and to introduce a balanced view, not only of Lincoln at the turning point, but of his chief adversary, Stephen A. Douglas. Both were ambitious, both patriots, both endowed with great talent. Neither needs hagiography, nor has either earned demonization. In matters of character, principle, and policy, I do make comparisons, but I try to avoid invidious distinctions.

Of Lincoln I do not shirk my own judgments. I confess that I have little doubt that the mature Lincoln at Peoria in 1854 is of a piece with the man who would be recognized as a great American statesman. There is, I believe, an unmistakable wholeness of character, genius, and enterprise to his public life from 1854 to 1865. But in 1854, the future President could not know what awaited him and his countrymen. Given the benefit of hindsight, every historian must be careful to avoid presumption. Historical interpretation should acknowledge how little of the future can be foreseen by men and women of affairs; how intractable are the circumstances facing political leaders; how unpredictable are historical outcomes; how varied are the motives that drive each contingent human decision; how, nonetheless, leadership can influence what might otherwise be improbable outcomes. Lincoln's antislavery campaign was an exercise in leadership.

To understand President Abraham Lincoln, one must understand the Peoria speech of October 16, 1854. It forms the foundation of his politics and principles, in the 1850s and in his presidency. The Peoria speech, delivered in three hours and ten minutes and composed of more than 17,000 words, is reprinted in full in an appendix. It is a rhetorical and literary masterpiece. This speech is the primary statement by Abraham Lincoln about the nature of early American history and its “peculiar institution” of slavery. Lincoln's arguments at Peoria were a comprehensive repudiation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of May 1854. Sponsored by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, this legislation voided the congressional prohibition on slavery in that section of the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30' parallel, a restriction on the spread of slavery agreed to in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Lincoln was appalled by this reversal of three decades of settled policy. He was opposed to any further spread of slavery in the American republic, founded as it was upon the Declaration of Independence. That “all men are created equal,” with the “inalienable right to liberty,” was, for Lincoln, a universal principle that Americans must not ignore.

With research and study conducted in the State Capitol, the forty-five year-old attorney carefully prepared a counterattack on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Years of studying Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, preparing for jury trials, litigating in the courts of Illinois, and researching American political history had prepared Lincoln’s mind and speech to argue the issues raised by the new legislation. To his natural aptitude for learning Lincoln now joined a mature intellect, a driving instinct for political organization, and a masterful g.html of the facts and logic of the case against Kansas-Nebraska.

[1] William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 264-65.