When most people think of Abraham Lincoln's greatest speeches, they think of the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural, the House Divided Speech, or the Cooper Institute Address. However, some think his best speech was "lost." Although roughly 40 news reporters were present for his May 29, 1856, speech in Bloomington, not one remembered to take notes. Over 1,000 people were present for the speech. Apparently Lincoln's effort was so captivating, the audience was simply mesmerized. What are the circumstances surrounding this amazing speech?
In 1856 Illinois, along with other states, held a state convention to help organize and strengthen the new Republican Party. In Illinois the convention met in Bloomington in Major's Hall located upstairs over Humphrey's Cheap Store. Broad spectrums of political beliefs were present: Whigs, Free Soilers, Know-Nothings, and abolitionists. The convention, composed of about 270 delegates, declared that Congress had and should employ its power to stop the spread of slavery westward. It adopted the following resolution:
After a series of speeches, there were cries for Abraham Lincoln to take the platform. At 5:30 P.M. he did so.
"Resolved, That we hold in accordance with the opinions and practices of all the great statesmen of all parties for the first sixty years of the administration of the government, that under the Constitution, Congress possesses full power to prohibit slavery in the territories; and that while we will maintain all constitutional rights of the South, we also hold that justice, humanity, the principles of freedom, as expressed in our Declaration of Independence and our National Constitution, and the purity and perpetuity of our government require that that power should be exerted, to prevent the extension of slavery into territories heretofore free."
The people listened for about 90 minutes. William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, "attempted for about fifteen minutes, as was usual with me then to take notes, but at the end of that time I threw pen and paper away and lived only in the inspiration of the hour." Lincoln spoke extemporaneously, and he clearly identified slavery as the root cause of the country's problems. One delegate said, "Never was an audience more completely electrified by human eloquence. Again and again, during the delivery, the audience sprang to their feet, and by long-continued cheers, expressed how deeply the speaker had roused them." Although no verbatim report of the speech exists, it seems clear from statements of those present that the key ideas Lincoln stressed were as follows:
1. That there were pressing reasons for the formation of the Republican Party.
2. That the Republican movement was very important to the future of the nation.
3. All free soil people needed to rally against slavery and the existing political evils.
4. The nation must be preserved in the purity of its principles as well as in the integrity of its territorial parts, and the Republicans were the ones to do it.
It was a truly a speech full of hypnotic inspiration as Lincoln attempted to unify all the discordant anti-slavery factions into a concerted party that could defeat the Democrats in upcoming elections. Writing in the Chicago Democrat, reporter John Wentworth said, "Abraham Lincoln for an hour and a half held the assemblage spellbound by the power of his argument, the intense irony of his invective, the brilliancy of his eloquence. I shall not mar any of its fine proportions by attempting even a synopsis of it." Herndon concluded, "His speech was full of fire and energy and force. It was logic; it was pathos; it was enthusiasm; it was justice, equity, truth, and right set ablaze by the devine fires of a soul maddened by the wrong; it was hard, heavy, knotty, gnarly, backed with wrath."
"The audience sat enthralled. Men listened as though transfixed. Reporters forgot to use the pencils in their hands, so that no complete and authentic record of what may have been his greatest speech has ever been found. At the end, the hall rocked with applause. The Republican Party was reborn in Illinois."***
Over the years a few "versions" of Lincoln's Lost Speech have been published. The most famous of these was by Henry Clay Whitney, a lawyer and Lincoln biographer. Whitney's version was published in McClure's Magazine in 1896. Whitney said that he had transcribed notes that were taken down while the speech was being delivered. The majority of Lincoln experts reject Whitney's report of the speech. One reason for this is that there was a 40-year gap between the speech itself and the publication of Whitney's version. In the Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia Dr. Mark E. Neely, Jr. writes as follows regarding Abraham Lincoln's Lost Speech:
Henry Clay Whitney later claimed to have made notes on the occasion, and in 1896 he sold McClure's Magazine the text of the speech, which the magazine published in its September issue. Joseph M. Medill, who had heard the speech, endorsed it as a 'close reproduction,' but John G. Nicolay, who also had heard it, thought it spurious. Nicolay was vindicated in 1930 when a brief account of the speech was found in the Alton Courier of June 5, 1856. The description differed so markedly from Whitney's version that no one now accepts Whitney's account."
* Elwell Crissey's opening sentence in Lincoln's Lost Speech: The Pivot of His Career.
** Paul M. Angle (1900-1975), noted Lincoln scholar, author, and Director of the Chicago Historical Society for 20 years.
*** Benjamin P. Thomas (1902-1956), noted Lincoln biographer.