Table of Contents
The Awakening of the Lion
The repeal of the Missouri Compromise caused great excitement throughout the land. The conscience of the anti-slavery portion of the community was shocked, as was also that of the large numbers of people who, though not opposed to slavery in itself, were opposed to its extension. It showed that this institution had a deadening effect upon the moral nature of the people who cherished it. There was no compromise so generous that it would satisfy their greed, there were no promises so solemn that they could be depended on to keep them. They were not content with maintaining slavery in their own territory. It was not enough that they should be allowed to take slaves into a territory consecrated to freedom, nor that all the powers of the law were devoted to recapturing a runaway slave and returning him to renewed horrors. They wanted all the territories which they had promised to let alone. It was a logical, and an altogether probable conclusion that they only waited for the opportunity to invade the northern states and turn them from free-soil into slave territory.
The indignation over this outrage not only flamed from thousands of pulpits, but newspapers and political clubs of all kinds took up the subject on one side or the other. Every moralist became a politician, and every politician discussed the moral bearings of his tenets.
In no locality was this excitement more intense than in Illinois. There were special reasons for this. It is a very long state, stretching nearly five hundred miles from north to south. Now, it is a general law among Americans that migration follows very nearly the parallels of latitude from East to West. For this reason the northern portion of the state was mostly settled by northern people whose sympathies were against slavery; while the southern portion of the state was mostly settled by southern people, whose sympathies were in favor of slavery. The state was nearly evenly divided, and the presence of these two parties kept up a continual friction and intensified the feeling on both sides.
To this general condition must be added the fact that Illinois was the home of Douglas, who was personally and almost solely responsible for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. In that state he had risen from obscurity to be the most conspicuous man in the United States. His party had a decided majority in the state, and over it he had absolute control. He was their idol. Imperious by nature, shrewd, unscrupulous, a debater of marvelous skill, a master of assemblies, a man who knew not the meaning of the word fail–this was Douglas. But his home was in Chicago, a city in which the anti-slavery sentiment predominated.
When Douglas returned to his state, his in more than one sense, it was not as a conquering hero. He did not return direct from Washington, but delayed, visiting various portions of the country. Possibly this was due to the urgency of business, probably it was in order to give time for the excitement to wear itself out. But this did not result, and his approach was the occasion of a fresh outbreak of feeling in Chicago; the demonstrations of the residents of that city were not a flattering welcome home. Bells were tolled as for public mourning, flags were hung at half mast. Nothing was omitted that might emphasize the general aversion to the man who had done that infamous deed.
A public meeting was planned, at which he was to speak in defense of his course. A large crowd, about five thousand people, gathered. Douglas was surrounded by his own friends, but the major portion of the crowd was intensely hostile to him. When he began to speak the opposition broke out. He was interrupted by questions and comments. These so exasperated him that he completely lost control of himself. He stormed, he shook his fist, he railed. The meeting broke up in confusion. Then came a reaction which greatly profited him. The papers published that he had attempted to speak and had not been allowed to do so, but had been hooted by a turbulent mob. All of which was true. By the time he spoke again the sympathy of the public had swung to his side, and he was sure of a favorable hearing.
This second speech was on the occasion of the state fair at Springfield. Men of all kinds and of every political complexion were present from even the remotest localities in the state. The speech was to be an address to a large audience fairly representative of the entire state.
Lincoln was there. Not merely because Springfield was his home. He doubtless would have been there anyhow. His ability as a politician, his growing fame as a lawyer and a public speaker, his well-known antipathy to slavery, singled him out as the one man who was preeminently fitted to answer the speech of Douglas, and he was by a tacit agreement selected for this purpose.
Lincoln himself felt the stirring impulse. It is not uncommon for the call of duty, or opportunity, to come once in a lifetime to the heart of a man with over-mastering power, so that his purposes and powers are roused to an unwonted and transforming degree of activity. It is the flight of the eaglet, the awakening of the lion, the transfiguration of the human spirit. To Lincoln this call now came. He was the same man, but he had reached another stage of development, entered a new experience, exhibiting new powers,–or the old powers to such a degree that they were virtually new. It is the purpose of this chapter to note three of his speeches which attest this awakening.
The first of these was delivered at the state Fair at Springfield. Douglas had spoken October 3d, 1854. Lincoln was present, and it was mentioned by Douglas, and was by all understood, that he would reply the following day, October 4th. Douglas was, up to that time, not only the shrewdest politician in the country, but he was acknowledged to be the ablest debater. He was particularly well prepared upon this subject, for to it he had given almost his entire time for nearly a year, and had discussed it in congress and out, and knew thoroughly the current objections. The occasion was unusual, and this was to be, and doubtless it was, his greatest effort.
The following day came Lincoln’s reply. As a matter of fairness, he said at the outset that he did not want to present anything but the truth. If he said anything that was not true, he would be glad to have Douglas correct him at once. Douglas, with customary shrewdness, took advantage of this offer by making frequent interruptions, so as to break the effect of the logic and destroy the flow of thought. Finally Lincoln’s patience was exhausted, and he paused in his argument to say: "Gentlemen, I cannot afford to spend my time in quibbles. I take the responsibility of asserting the truth myself, relieving Judge Douglas from the necessity of his impertinent corrections.” This silenced his opponent, and he spoke without further interruption to the end, his speech being three hours and ten minutes long.
The effect of the speech was wonderful. The scene, as described next day in the Springfield Journal, is worth quoting:
“Lincoln quivered with feeling and emotion. The whole house was as still as death. He attacked the bill with unusual warmth and energy, and all felt that a man of strength was its enemy, and that he meant to blast it if he could by strong and manly efforts. He was most successful; and the house approved the glorious triumph of truth by loud and long-continued huzzas.... Mr. Lincoln exhibited Douglas in all the attitudes he could be placed in a friendly debate. He exhibited the bill in all its aspects to show its humbuggery and falsehoods, and when thus torn to rags, cut into slips, held up to the gaze of the vast crowd, a kind of scorn was visible upon the face of the crowd, and upon the lips of the most eloquent speaker.... At the conclusion of the speech, every man felt that it was unanswerable–that no human power could overthrow it or trample it under foot. The long and repeated applause evinced the feelings of the crowd, and gave token, too, of the universal assent to Lincoln’s whole argument; and every mind present did homage to the man who took captive the heart and broke like a sun over the understanding.”
The speech itself, and the manner of its reception, could not other than rouse Douglas to a tempest of wrath. It was a far more severe punishment than to be hooted from the stage, as he had been in Chicago. He was handled as he had never been handled in his life. He took the platform, angrily claimed that he had been abused, and started to reply. But he did not get far. He had no case. He became confused, lost his self-control, hesitated, finally said that he would reply in the evening, and left the stage. That was the end of the incident so far as Douglas was concerned. When the evening came he had disappeared, and there was no reply.
Twelve days later, on October 16, Lincoln had promised to speak in Peoria. To that place Douglas followed, or preceded him. Douglas made his speech in the afternoon, and Lincoln followed in the evening. It was the same line of argument as in the other speech. Lincoln later consented to write it out for publication. We thus have the Springfield and Peoria speech, minus the glow of extemporaneous address, the inspiration of the orator. These are important factors which not even the man himself could reproduce. But we have his own report, which is therefore authentic. The most salient point in his speech is his reply to Douglas’s plausible representation that the people of any locality were competent to govern themselves. “I admit,” said Lincoln, “that the emigrant to Kansas and Nebraska is competent to govern himself, but I deny his right to govern any other person without that other person’s consent.” This is the kernel of the entire question of human slavery.
The result of this speech at Peoria was less dramatic than that at Springfield, but it was no less instructive. Douglas secured from Lincoln an agreement that neither of them should again speak during that campaign. It was quite evident that he had learned to fear his antagonist and did not wish again to risk meeting him on the rostrum. Lincoln kept the agreement. Douglas did not. Before he got home in Chicago, he stopped off to make another speech.
These speeches were made in 1854. It is now worth while to skip over two years to record another epoch-making speech, one which in spirit and temper belongs here. For it shows to what intensity Lincoln was aroused on this vast and ever-encroaching subject of slavery. This was at the convention which was held in Bloomington for the purpose of organizing the Republican party. The date of the convention was May 29, 1856. The center of interest was Lincoln’s speech. The reporters were there in sufficient force, and we would surely have had a verbatim report–except for one thing. The reporters did not report. Let Joseph Medill, of the Chicago Tribune, tell why:
“It was my journalistic duty, though a delegate to the convention, to make a ’long-hand’ report of the speeches delivered for the Chicago Tribune. I did make a few paragraphs of what Lincoln said in the first eight or ten minutes, but I became so absorbed in his magnetic oratory, that I forgot myself and ceased to take notes, and joined with the convention in cheering and stamping and clapping to the end of his speech.
I well remember that after Lincoln had sat down and calm had succeeded the tempest, I waked out of a sort of hypnotic trance, and then thought of my report for the Tribune. There was nothing written but an abbreviated introduction.
It was some sort of satisfaction to find that I had not been ’scooped,’ as all the newspaper men present had been equally carried away by the excitement caused by the wonderful oration, and had made no report or sketch of the speech.”
Mr. Herndon, who was Lincoln’s law partner, and who knew him so intimately that he might be trusted to keep his coolness during the enthusiasm of the hour, and who had the mechanical habit of taking notes for him, because he was his partner, said: “I 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.”
There is no doubt that the audience was generally, if not unanimously, affected in the same way. The hearers went home and told about this wonderful speech. Journalists wrote flaming editorials about it. The fame of it went everywhere, but there was no report of it. It therefore came to be known as “Lincoln’s lost speech.”
Precisely forty years afterwards one H. C. Whitney published in one of the magazines an account of it. He says that he made notes of the speech, went home and wrote them out. Why he withheld this report from the public for so many years, especially in view of the general demand for it, does not precisely appear. The report, however, is interesting.
But after the lapse of nearly half a century, it is a matter of minor importance whether Mr. Whitney’s report be accurate or not. To us the value of the three speeches mentioned in this chapter is found largely in the impression they produced upon the hearers. The three taken together show that Lincoln had waked to a new life. The lion in him was thoroughly roused, he was clothed with a tremendous power, which up to this point had not been suspected by antagonists nor dreamed of by admiring friends. This new and mighty power he held and wielded until his life’s end. Thenceforth he was an important factor in national history.