Abe Lincoln's Lost Speech May Have Also Been His Best
On May 29, 1856, at an event known as the Bloomington Convention in Illinois, future President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech that captivated an audience of more than one thousand. He spoke for 90 minutes, and his words were filled with such fire and enthusiasm that the audience frequently got to their feet and cheered.
And no one bothered to take notes to record it. Today, Lincoln’s Bloomington address is known as Lincoln’s Lost Speech. It has a reputation for possibly being one of Lincoln’s greatest speeches, and it has potential importance to both Lincoln’s career and American political history.
While Lincoln’s direct words are not known, the overall premise of his message is generally agreed upon. In the speech, he attempted to bring together all of the different non-Democrat groups of the time around the cause of anti-slavery as well as preserving the Union.
At the time of the 1856 convention, tensions were high in the United States. Full-blown secession and the Civil War were still a few years away, but clashes over the expansion of slavery had already led to violence in new states and territories like Kansas. Failure to stop the spread of slavery, along with a mess of other dysfunction, led to the demise of the once-prominent Whig Party.
Different factions had emerged from the disaffected Whigs, and the new party that seemed to fit their needs was the new Republican Party, which Lincoln belonged to. The Bloomington Convention was critical to the establishment of a unified Republican Party in Illinois, and it seems likely that Lincoln’s speech had at least some effect on getting the attendees onboard.
If it was such an important speech at a critical time, though, why didn’t anyone take the effort to write it down? Well, it is often believed that everyone was so hooked by Lincoln’s speech that even the 40 or so reporters in attendance neglected to take detailed notes. Another theory is that because the crowd represented different political groups and interests, they would have had reason to not want to spread such a speech. If the speech was as fiery as it was believed to have been, then publishing it could have seemed like taking a needlessly firm stance. At this time, Republicans were not guaranteed to be a party that amounted to anything, and anti-slavery ideas were still not the norm.
Lincoln’s speech did get news coverage, though, which has only helped build its legacy. While no reporter had a detailed account of what the future 16th President had to say, they did describe his passion and how enthralled the audience was. This only helped build the legacy of the Lost Speech.
Some who are familiar with the story may have already hastily typed a comment saying that there were published versions of the speech. This is true, but only if you put “true” in quotation marks and also add a few asterisks. Full accounts of the speech that do exist are controversial at best.
The most famous of these was published in 1896, 40 years after the Bloomington Convention, by Lincoln biographer Henry Clay Whitney. However, Lincoln scholars don’t consider this version valid. If Whitney could have published the speech, why did he wait so long? Whitney’s version and any other lesser-known copies of Lincoln’s Lost Speech are likely just 19th-century clout chasers trying to act like they were present for a speech that had been a subject of fascination at the time.
For fans of lost media, Lincoln’s Lost Speech is the ultimate treasure. It’s a piece of American history that might be incredibly significant, but at this point, it is fair to say that it is almost assuredly lost to time.
Top Image: Popular Graphic Arts/Wiki Commons