Friday, July 4, 2008

Lincoln at Peoria

by Lewis E. Lehrman

From the publisher:
Lincoln at Peoria tells the tale of a hardworking lawyer in Springfield, Illinois at a political turning point. To understand President Abraham Lincoln, one must understand the private citizen who gave the extraordinary antislavery speech at Peoria on October 16, 1854. This three hour address marked the turning point in his political pilgrimage. It dramatically altered the political career of the speaker and, as a result, the history of America.

Lincoln at Peoria examines the seminal Peoria speech and the historical context in which Lincoln delivered it. While some may argue that Lincoln underwent a transformation upon assuming the presidency in1861, the book's author Lewis Lehrman contends, "The great divide between the statecraft of his presidential years and his early legislative years originates with the speech at Peoria in 1854." The book emphasizes the unmistakable wholeness of character, genius, and enterprise to Lincoln s public life from 1854 to 1865. Lincoln s comprehensive antislavery case made at Peoria inspired his subsequent speeches, public letters, and state papers.

The Peoria speech is also Lincoln s primary statement about the nature of early American history and its peculiar institution of slavery. All of his arguments opposed any further extension of slavery in the American republic, founded, as he argued, upon the Declaration of Independence. That all men are created equal, with the inalienable right to liberty, was, for Lincoln, a universal principle that Americans must not ignore. The author of this book insists that Lincoln believed America must get right with the Declaration of Independence. In 1876, the centennial year of the Declaration, the great black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass summarized Lincoln s achievement: "...measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined."

Admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1837, having served four terms in the State Legislature and a single term in Congress (1846-1848), Abraham Lincoln had substantially withdrawn from politics between 1849 and 1854. During these five years, his Springfield law practice prospered. Traveling often by horse and buggy, he became a well-respected litigator on the 8th judicial circuit of Illinois.

Then, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, one of the most explosive congressional statutes of American history, burst upon the Illinois prairie with its passage in May of 1854. Sponsored by the famous Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, this legislation repealed the prohibition on slavery in that section of the Louisiana Territory north of the 36 30 parallel a restriction on the spread of slavery agreed by North and South in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Kansas-Nebraska Act inaugurated an incendiary chapter in the slavery debates of the early American Republic.

In response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln launched his antislavery campaign. He delivered the substance of his arguments at Springfield on October 4, 1854, for which there are only press reports. A longer version came twelve days later at Peoria. The Springfield remarks did not survive, but by preparing them meticulously for publication, Lincoln made sure the Peoria text endured.

The Peoria address was rigorous, logical, and grounded in thorough historical research marking Lincoln s reentry into politics and his preparation for the presidency in 1861. Lincoln s contemporaries noted that the speech catapulted Lincoln into the national debates over slavery and into national politics for the rest of his life.