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02/15/09: Bloomington was the scene for Lincoln's famous 'Lost Speech'
Located on the 100 block of E. Front St., Major's Hall was the site of the May 29, 1856 "anti-Nebraska" Convention that led to the formation of the Illinois Republican Party. In 1872, a fire ravaged the building's third story, and in 1959 the remaining two stories were razed for a parking lot. This is a revised version of a 1957 rendering by Bloomington architect Gene Asbury. (Courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History)

BLOOMINGTON - On May 29, 1856, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech in Bloomington that friends and observers called the finest of his career. | From Our Past page

"I have heard or read all of Mr. Lincoln's great speeches; and I give it as my opinion that the Bloomington speech was the grand effort of his life," remembered Lincoln's law partner William Herndon, who was in the audience that night.

The occasion was a gathering of Illinoisans who, despite their varying political allegiances, coalesced around one issue: Opposition to the expansion of slavery. The convention marked the formation of the Illinois Republican Party and the ascension of Lincoln as its moral voice.

"His speech was full of fire and energy and force," added Herndon. "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."

Yet since no copy of the address exists, today it's known - fairly or not - as Lincoln's "Lost Speech."

Lincoln was in Bloomington for the "State Convention of the Anti-Nebraska Party of Illinois." Delegates to this "anti-Nebraska" convention had nothing against what would become the state of Nebraska. Rather, they opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that repealed the Missouri Compromise and threatened to extend slavery into free western territories.

The 250 or so delegates that streamed into Bloomington included: fugitives from the collapsing Whig Party (like Lincoln); Democrats who opposed the expansion of slavery; German immigrants; abolitionists; and even anti-immigrant "know nothings." Candidates running on the anti-Nebraska ticket formally adopted the Republican Party label several months later.

The convention was held in a cramped auditorium in Major's Hall, a long-gone, three-story building at the corner of Front and East streets. Delegates nominated former Democrat William H. Bissell for governor and passed a series of resolutions shaping the party platform.

Illinois Republicans ended up capturing all statewide offices that year, though their presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, lost both the state and national race to Democrat James Buchanan.

After completing the convention's formal business, delegates adjourned before returning to Major's Hall for an evening of speechmaking. Lincoln's address, delivered before an estimated 1,000 people, started around 5:30 p.m. and lasted some 90 minutes. Several fragments of the speech remain, including slightly different versions of the phrase, "We won't go out of the Union and you (meaning southern states) shan't."

The most complete account of Lincoln's speech comes from the June 5, 1856, Weekly Courier of Alton. "(Lincoln) was here ready to fuse with anyone who would unite with him to oppose slave power," the Courier reported. Lincoln also declared "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.' "

According to legend, the "fervid brilliancy" of Lincoln's speech caused enraptured supporters and newspapermen to throw away their pens and live, as Herndon put it, "in the inspiration of the hour." If one knows anything about the hard-bitten world of 19th century politics and journalism, this explanation seems patently absurd.

One explanation as to why the speech was "lost" is self-censorship. Lincoln might have been averse to distributing copies of it to sympathetic newspaper editors. After all, his apparent anti-slavery passion and his not-so-subtle warnings to the South ran contrary to efforts to place a moderate veneer on the emergent anti-Nebraska party.

During the speech, according to an account in the Belleville Weekly Advocate, Lincoln criticized "National Whigs," a term for members of his former party who, in the name of national unity, refused to fuse with the "sectional" anti-Nebraska movement.

Lincoln said these conservative Whigs, fearful of alienating and antagonizing the South, embraced union at the cost of aiding and abetting the westward expansion of slavery. National Whigs "are all the time stepping about to the music of the Union," said a sarcastic Lincoln (at least according to The Advocate's account). "(Lincoln) had no doubt but that the music of an overseer's lash upon a mulatto girl's back would make some of them dance a Virginia hornpipe. 'Let them step,' said he, 'let them dance to the music of Union, while we, my old Whig friends, stand fast by Principle and Freedom and the Union, together.'"

To put it another way, Lincoln was saying that union, in and of itself, was not enough. Union, in his estimation, had to be tied to the ideals of freedom and liberty. The genius of Lincoln was that he well understood the incompatibility of slavery (especially its unchecked expansion) and the promise, however imperfect, of America.

"Heretofore he had simply argued the slavery question on grounds of policy - the statesman's grounds - never reaching the question of the radical and the eternal right," Herndon observed. "Now he was newly baptized and freshly born; he had the fervor of a new convert."

The nation would never be the same again.

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