Peoria speech viewed as foundation of Lincoln’s career as statesman

Theo Jean Kenyon

He came alone, riding into town on horseback.

Just six years later he would be president of the United States.

It was at the request of a committee of Whigs that Abraham Lincoln rode into Peoria Oct. 16, 1854, and delivered a speech that many historians believe to be the beginning of Lincoln as a statesman and the foundation of every argument he ever brought forth.

The Whigs wanted Lincoln to answer U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, the popular "Little Giant," in a debate on the Kansas-Nebraska Act that gave citizens of those future states the right to decide whether they wished to be a free or slave territory.

Douglas came in triumph in a carriage, cheered by a crowd of 500. His fellow Democrats were the dominant party in Peoria County and controlled the elections.

But the speech Lincoln delivered here - his "Peoria speech" - proved a to be a defining moment and launched him on the road to the presidency.

It took nearly three hours to deliver, and it came down upon Douglas so crushingly that he did not even undertake to reply. He broke off further talks and would not match words with Lincoln again until the debates of 1858.

Many Lincoln scholars credit the Peoria speech with marking the start of the political strength that carried Lincoln on to the White House, and Lewis E. Lehrman in his new book, "Lincoln at Peoria - The Turning Point" (Stackpole Books, $29.95), agrees.

Lehrman's detailed study shines a spotlight on the importance of what Lincoln said here.

It also introduces the reader to Lincoln as an articulate spokesman for the anti-slavery cause at a critical point in the nation's history. His arguments that night would become the cornerstone of all his later political debates and campaigns.

Many of Lincoln's clearest words on the subject of slavery were spoken that evening.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in May 1854, had been sponsored by Douglas. It repealed the prohibition on the spread of slavery agreed to by North and South in the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Lincoln was very clear.

"This declared indifference but, as I must think, covert zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. Hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world; enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites; causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity; and especially because it forces good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of liberty,"

And Lincoln was very open about his own stand. He explored the moral question of slavery and tracked it to its basic flaw.

"If the Negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government to say he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government - that is despotism.

"What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent."

Lincoln lamented that "our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white in the spirit if not the blood of the Revolution."

"Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, its practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south - let all Americans - let all lovers of liberty everywhere - join in the great and good work."

Lehrman stresses in his book that "in 1854, Lincoln insisted that restoration of the Declaration's equality principle would set slavery on the course of ultimate extinction,"

Lincoln chastised Douglas for the Kansas-Nebraska measure as a setback to that idea, saying, "In his (Douglas') view the question of whether a new country shall be slave or free, is a matter of utter indifference, as it is whether his neighbor should plant his farm with tobacco or stock it with horned cattle.

"Now, whether this view is right or wrong, it is very certain that the great mass of mankind take a totally different view. They consider slavery a great moral wrong, and their feeling against it, is not evanescent, but eternal."

In his long speech, Lincoln chronicled the nation's history and the many laws that had been passed to limit the spread of slavery, saying the spirit of the age was "hostility" to the principle of slavery and toleration only by necessity.

Lincoln knew that he had put his thoughts in order in his Peoria speech. He wrote it out three days after its delivery here, and it was published in seven consecutive issues of the Illinois State Journal at Springfield. Lincoln corrected the proofs himself.

The setting for the Peoria speech was memorable.

It took place on the lawn of the "old" Peoria County Courthouse, and Douglas was the first to speak.

When he had finished by late afternoon, Lincoln proposed that the crowd should eat supper and return at 6:30 or 7 p.m.

"If you hear me at all, I wish you to hear me through," he said, adding that he had agreed to a rebuttal from Douglas because "I suspected if it were understood the judge was entirely done, you Democrats would leave and not hear me, but by giving him the close you would stay for the fun of hearing him skin me."

The crowd returned in the evening and heard Lincoln speak by torchlight.

But when he finished, there was no rebuttal.

Douglas did not meet Lincoln face to face again until the debates of the 1858 campaign, and by then he knew what to expect.

Douglas told a Philadelphia editor of the day, "I shall have my hands full. He is the strong man of his party - full of wit, facts, dates and the best stump-speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West. He is as honest as he is shrewd, and if I beat him, my victory will be hardly won."

Douglas went on to win the Senate campaign of 1858, but two years later he was present for Lincoln's inauguration as president, and according to one story, held the president's stovepipe hat while Lincoln took the oath of office.

Theo Jean Kenyon can be reached at (309) 686-3190