Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point

by Lewis E. Lehrman, Stackpole Books, 2008, $29.95

For five years following his lone term as a U.S. congressman in 1847-49, Abraham Lincoln remained outside the political landscape. But as Lincoln scholar Lewis Lehrman points out in this enjoyable new book, that all changed dramatically on October 16, 1854, when the future president locked horns with Senator Stephen Douglas at a “debate” in Peoria, Illinois. The subject of discussion that night was the Douglas-sponsored Kansas-Nebraska Act, and, as the book’s title signifies, it was the turning point of Lincoln’s political fortunes.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had been signed into law earlier that year, effectively repealed the restraints on slavery that had been instituted in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Lincoln believed the act was a clear and significant threat that would spread slavery into what heretofore had been untouchable sections of the country. When Douglas, chairman of the Senate’s Territories Committee, returned to Illinois to defend the controversial legislation as he campaigned for the fall elections, Lincoln put himself in a prominent position to speak out against it.

Lehrman has an impressive pedigree for this subject. He co-founded the Lincoln & Soldiers Institute at Gettysburg College, and joined forces with Richard Gilder to establish the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. He also received the National Humanities Medal in 2005 for his body of work in American history.

As Lehrman reveals in this well-written, thoroughly documented account, the ground rules for the Peoria event were stacked in Douglas’ favor. The schedule called for the senator to talk first. Lincoln would then speak, but there was a provision that Douglas would be allowed to end the evening with a response to Lincoln’s deliberations. Douglas’ opening remarks ran for three hours. After a break, the session reconvened at 7 p.m., with Lincoln also speaking for three hours.

Lincoln had prepared himself well. He delivered a cogent review of slavery’s history in the United States, and he used the Declaration of Independence as a major linchpin during his arguments, stressing in particular the theme that “all men are created equal.” Lehr man notes that Lincoln had mentioned the Declaration of Independence only twice before in his entire public speaking record but this time made full use of the concepts of equality that he found embodied in it.

Lincoln’s comments were apparently quite effective. Observers reported that Douglas’ subsequent response was notably anticlimactic and ineffectual in comparison.

Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point provides an excellent account of the political and cultural temper of that period of history, and Lehrman includes at the back of the book the entire text of Lincoln’s three-hour speech at Peoria. In 1860, when Lincoln was one of four candidates for president, he declined to campaign actively. Instead, he allowed his comments from 1854, his series of debates with Douglas in 1858 and his famous 1860 Cooper Union speech to speak for him. Lincoln felt strongly that his thoughts and positions were already a matter of public record that voters could examine on their own accord.

Lehrman’s book provides a better understanding of Lincoln’s views on slavery and the decisions he made in the early days of the secession crisis of 1860-61 as efforts were made to find compromises to forestall the war.

 

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here