Many local residents have heard something about Abraham Lincoln’s so-called “Lost Speech,” delivered in downtown Bloomington on May 29, 1856.
Yet most folks don’t know the story about the time when the Lost Speech was purportedly found. That was in the 1890s, and for a few decades after its apparent reemergence the no-longer-lost Lost Speech began appearing in Lincoln biographies and published collections of his writings.
Confused? OK, let’s start at the beginning!
One could make a strong case that the single most important event in local history — at least from a national perspective — was Abraham Lincoln’s keynote address before some 1,100 delegates and supporters of the “State Convention of the Anti-Nebraska Party of Illinois.”
That mouthful may not sound like a big deal, but members of this “Anti-Nebraska Party” were there to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its threat to spread slavery into northern territories.
Disparate Anti-Nebraska groups — abolitionists, anti-slavery Whigs like Lincoln, disaffected Democrats, German immigrants, and even nativist “Know Nothings” — fused to form the Republican Party and halt slavery’s westward extension.
That evening in late May 1856, at Major’s Hall on Front Street, Lincoln became the unassailable leader and moral voice in this new political movement. More than one observer called it the finest speech of his life. And since there was no known transcription of what he said, it became known as Lincoln’s “Lost Speech.”
Until the 1890s, that is. That was when Henry Clay Whitney, a former colleague of Lincoln’s on the Eighth Judicial Circuit, announced that he had taken notes during the entire 90-minute speech. He then cobbled together these 40-year-old jottings into what he claimed was a reasonable 8,000-word or so reproduction of the immortal address.
The Lost Speech was no longer lost! Or so it seemed. Whitney’s version first appeared in the September 1896 issue of McClure’s Magazine, a popular periodical of the day.
Although this rediscovered Lost Speech is now generally regarded more as a work of imagination rather than historical fact, Whitney was no charlatan. He settled in Urbana in 1854 and practiced law, and there he met Lincoln. The two men struck up a friendship and Whitney often accompanied Lincoln on the circuit. In fact, the two even traveled from Danville to Decatur and then north on the Illinois Central Railroad to Bloomington for the May 29, 1856, political convention.
The evening before his speech, Lincoln spoke from the Pike House, a popular hotel at the corner of Center and Monroe streets in Bloomington. He told those gathered that he had prepared a speech for the convention. Yet he did not read from a prepared text the following day at Major’s Hall, and so it appears the speech was never written out, at least by him.
Whitney or no Whitney, we do know some of what Lincoln said that evening thanks to contemporary newspaper accounts. The most thorough report 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.”
Additional detailed coverage appeared in the Belleville Weekly Advocate. Lincoln, according to the Advocate, criticized “National Whigs,” a term for members of his former party who, in the name of national unity, were willing to aid and abet slavery’s expansion into northern territories heretofore free.
OK, we know some of what Lincoln said that night. But why was no full transcription made by one of the many newspapermen in the audience?
The story goes that the power of Lincoln’s oratory caused mesmerized reporters to throw down their pens and live, as Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon put it, “in the inspiration of the hour.”
Perhaps. Yet others find such an explanation a mite too fanciful.
“The truth of it is the great mass of the leaders felt that Lincoln made too radical a speech and they did not want it produced for fear it would damage the party,” recalled Eugene F. Baldwin, a Peoria newspaper editor and publisher writing in 1908. “Lincoln himself said he had put his ‘foot into it’ and asked the reporters to simply report the meeting and not attempt to record his words and they agreed to it.”
Regardless, Whitney claimed he kept his head and took notes all the while, though he was no stenographer and didn’t know shorthand. Whitney’s greatest ally in the ensuing debate was Joseph Medill, a Chicago Tribune editor who attended the Bloomington convention.
“I have carefully and reflectively read it,” Medill said in defense of Whitney’s Lost Speech, “and he has reproduced with remarkable accuracy what Mr. Lincoln said, largely in his identical language and partly in synonymous terms.”
Yet despite Medill’s assurances, Whitney’s text is patently problematic on several fronts. First, it failed to incorporate contemporary newspaper accounts given by both the Courier and the Advocate. In other words, the precious little of the Lost Speech that is indeed verifiable does not appear in Whitney’s version.
Detractors also note that Whitney’s book, "Life on the Circuit with Lincoln," makes no mention of taking notes during Lincoln’s Lost Speech, this despite its publication four short years before the “rediscovered” Lost Speech saw the light of day.
Others were bolder in their criticism of Whitney. “Not only is his restoration devoid of Lincoln’s style and phraseology, but its trustworthiness is evinced by two or three anachronisms,” concluded John Nicolay, one of Lincoln’s trusted White House secretaries who attended the Bloomington convention. “The claim that this ‘Lost Speech’ has any historical value whatever is simply absurd.”
On May 29, 1900, a number of eyewitnesses to the Lost Speech, including John M. Palmer, a leading Illinois Democrat who became an anti-Nebraska leader, and George Schneider, a Bavarian-born newspaper editor from Chicago who represented German Republicans, gathered in Bloomington for the 44th anniversary of the Anti-Nebraska convention. Palmer, Schneider and others were unanimous in their dismissal of Whitney’s rediscovery. “Many now living heard the great speech,” they declared in a joint statement, “and, where Mr. Lincoln was so well known and loved, all his friends consider the speech still lost.”
One of the greatest takedowns of Whitney comes from Isaac Newton Phillips, a Bloomington attorney and later court reporter for the Illinois Supreme Court.
Whitney employed “many phrases and sentences” of Lincoln’s in his “alleged reproduction,” Phillips acknowledged in 1901. Yet “wherever the speech departs from the phraseology known from other evidence to be that of Lincoln it drops into the very dishwater of sheer mediocrity.”
Concluded Phillips: “It is high time this bald literary fraud had been given its quietus.”