Lincoln Letter & Speech

Early Lincoln
Lincoln Speech

It began with a letter. Abraham Lincoln, representative from Illinois, came to Kalamazoo on August 27, 1856 on the invitation of Kalamazoo attorney, Hezekiah G. Wells. Wells asked Lincoln to speak at a Republican Rally (“Fremont mass meeting”) in Bronson Park.

Lincoln was one of many speakers in the park that summer day. His 2,781 word speech (about 16.5 minutes long) was given in front of thousands of people and was recorded, by hand, by a newspaper reporter from Detroit. The speech was discovered in 1930 and published in 1941.

Here you can read the speech with accompanying curatorial comments or listen to an actor’s interpretation of the speech.

What is the Speech About?

Abraham Lincoln’s speech was intended to promote the Republican Presidential candidate in 1856, John C. Fremont. The speech, however, does not address Fremont’s qualifications. Instead, it focuses on the issue that gave rise to the Republican Party. That issue was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, proposed by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, opened the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to settlement. It angered anti-slavery activists because it effectively repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise that had restricted slavery in the territories north of 36⁰30′ latitude which included Kansas and Nebraska. Instead, the Kansas-Nebraska Act said that the settlers of those territories could decide for themselves whether they would be free or slave states, a concept that Douglas called “popular sovereignty.”

This opened the possibility that slavery could expand from the Southern states to the Midwestern plains. Anti-slavery activists felt that this expansion of slavery threatened the free labor, free market capitalist system of the Northern states. They responded by organizing a new political party in 1854, the Republican Party, and ran their first Presidential campaign in 1856.

Lincoln’s speech addresses the issues raised by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery. He stresses that the Republicans do not propose the abolition of slavery but they oppose its expansion. He attempts to draw the distinction between Fremont and the Democratic nominee, James C. Buchanan, as well as the American Party candidate, former President Millard Fillmore.

As you read (or listen) to the speech, see if you can understand the issues that Lincoln raises.