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Lincoln’s Lost Speech

Lost Speech

Most orations of historical figures are lost to us if they lived prior to the Nineteenth Century.  Usually we have summaries or reports of speeches, but the exact words are often lost.  Even in the Nineteenth Century, with the advent of mass papers and stenographic reports, many speeches of even major figures are lost to us.  So was the case with Abraham Lincoln, with his most famous lost speech being a stem winder of an attack on slavery that he made on May 29, 1856 at an anti-Nebraska convention that ended with the founding of the Republican party in Illinois.  Lincoln spoke for ninety minutes denouncing slavery, and calling on the creation of a Republican party in Illinois to do battle against the advocates of slavery.  His speech was frequently interrupted with cheers and standing ovations as Lincoln deeply moved his audience.

Other than very brief summaries in the press, the speech is completely lost, which is rather odd.  The convention was attended by representatives of the press, and Lincoln usually prepared his speeches in writing beforehand, although he was a master of revising them on the fly as he spoke.

In 1896 Chicago attorney Henry Clay Whitney wrote an article that he claimed contained the text of the speech from his notes that he took at the time.  Lincoln’s former secretary John Nicolay immediately denounced the text as a fraud, devoid completely of Lincoln’s style, and almost all historians have shared his conviction that Whitney made his text up.

Why the speech was not reported is a matter of conjecture.  It has been claimed that the reporters present were so stunned by Lincoln’s eloquence, and so swept up in the moment, that their pencils fell from their fingers.  Perhaps, although considering the hard bitten nature of most members of the Fourth Estate in Lincoln’s day, rather unlikely.  Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon who was present thought that the speech was such a radical attack on slavery that Lincoln agreed to its suppression so as not to hurt attempts to preserve the Union.  I personally find both explanations wanting.  A more likely explanation is that Lincoln did speak completely extemporaneously on this occasion, he was perhaps the finest stump orator of his time, and that the reporters present did not take down his words, assuming that he was using a text based upon his usual practice, and that he would give them a copy at the conclusion of his speech.  It is also possible that Lincoln’s enthusiastic audience was making so much noise that the reporters gave up attempts to take down Lincoln’s words because they could not clearly make out what he was saying.

In any event, the speech is truly lost to history and the most complete account of it is this brief summary in the Alton-Courier which appeared on June 5, 1856:

“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; spokes 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.”

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

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