Lincoln In Edwardsville: The Moral Idea is Boldly Suggested

written February 2012

Edwardsville had a history of “pseudo-slavery,” embracing Illinois’ Black Laws, and an antagonism towards abolitionists long before Abraham Lincoln spoke in the town in September of 1858.[1]  Gov. Edward Coles’ attempt to free slaves and end Black Codes in 1822 also included a ban on the future “emigration of free negroes to the state.”  More than thirty years later many in Edwardsville held to their complex relationship with slavery; some “may have favored abolition” but townspeople knew better than to“expose their views” in public. Lincoln’s intended audiences were “conservative old-line Whigs of central Illinois”, Madison Country being an extreme southern outlier of this political region hugging the Mississippi River.[2]  Yet the Whig Belt was vital to Lincoln’s victory.  Edwardsville is an early stump example of Lincoln taking on slavery with uncommon eloquence, clarity and force as an evil that would reappear in later Douglas debates, a tactic “sought to win over Fillmore men by appealing to their moral sense.”[3]  While an “evil,” Whigs could also “be opposed to abolition.”[4]  At Edwardsville Lincoln would walk this difficult line with a strategy noted by David Zarefsky, that “if slaves were human, then, at the very least, they shared at least some fundamental level in whatever it was that makes people human.”[5]  Lincoln then did not have to argue for abolitionism to best Douglas, only that slaves were men and women, which would undermine popular sovereignty’s rational of consensual rule.

  Following the Freeport debate of August 27, both Lincoln and Douglas had zigzagged central and western Illinois, raising support with individual speeches. Edwardsville was host to both Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on September 11 (though they never met), the candidates making their way south for the joint-debate two days later in Jonesboro. Douglas arrived first in Edwardsville, in the morning. “Famous and adored” in the Democratic stronghold, the senator led a large procession down Main Street to the courthouse.  An historical summary recounts Douglas painting the “Black Republican Party” as “abolitionists in disguise who wanted to do away with Illinois’ popular Black Laws” to great excitement.[6]

  Lincoln came to Edwardsville a total of three times in his life.[7]His connection to the town was mostly incidental, being the hometown of Governor Ninian Edwards’ son, who would go on to Springfield’s social scene and throw the party in which Mary Todd and Lincoln met.[8]  Lincoln had last spoken in Edwardsville on May 18, delivering an early version of the “House Divided” speech, the famous line still an unsaid heading to the familiar passage (although the Edwardsville history calls Lincoln “unknown” upon his third visit).[9]  The Lincoln that arrived in Edwardsville had made a poor showing in the first Douglas debate, in Ottawa, then somewhat rebounded in Freeport by asking his four questions of Douglas.  The incumbent had been weighing on Lincoln’s mind these early September days.  On the third of September Lincoln wrote of the importance of immediately countering Douglas, that “speaking at the same place the next day” could be effective.[10]  Three days before Edwardsville, while in Clinton, Lincoln had coined his famous “You can fool all the people sometime” epigram, clearly aimed at Douglas, that “will tell a lie to ten thousand” even if he must “deny it five thousand the next.”[11] Keeping to his tactic of “concluding” Douglas, Lincoln reached Edwardsville “in the early afternoon” from Alton, hoping to reinvigorate the memories of Henry Clay in old Whigs.[12]  Lincoln would not be completely without confidants. Edwardsville was the home of Joseph Gillespie, a fellow Republican leader and trusted friend that both served in the Black Hawk War and in Illinois General Assembly with Lincoln. He served that day as Lincoln’s campaign chairman.[13]  Gillespie’s home was unavailable for a“reception” however, due to his wife Mary being “very pregnant.”[14]  Instead Gillespie took Lincoln to his brother Matthew’s home, and then on to a dinner at Haskett’s Tavern.[15]  Many years later Mary Rollins, a young kitchen helper that day, recalled “two long tables and lots of flags and people eating there until two.”[16]

  Not to be outdone by Douglas’ showing hours earlier, Joseph Gillespie later recorded arranging “for a band to escort Lincoln up Main Street to the courthouse.”[17]  This did not have the desired effect, judging from the spectators.  “It was a poor showing” one recalled in 1912, with Gillespie and Lincoln the sole paraders with the band.  The Edwardsville history implies that the low turnout for the spectacle was intentional.[18] It was one thing to listen to a Republican speak, but judging from the march down Main no one wanted to be seen actively endorsing its anti-slavery platform.

  Horace White, a reporter, noted it was “a quiet autumn day in the quaint old town,”setting a picture of ease that belied the emotions of the assembled audience.  The courthouse crowd was called “respectable” while the exact number was “three or four hundred people.[19]  The mood was “serious.”[20]  Gillespie biographer Paul Nygard states the scene was “of caution and concern.”[21]

  The Edwardsville speech was an “unusually eloquent”[22] address in four parts with an overarching theme of freedom.  An unnamed man not known to Lincoln posed a question “of the difference, as [Lincoln] understands it, between the Democratic and Republican parties.”[23]  It appears that Lincoln either answers this question extemporaneously or with little preparation (“lest I forget it, I will give you my answer before proceeding”).[24]  Given Lincoln’s present surroundings, in this Democratically-leaning land of “Goshen,” and just having receiving a tepid welcome of his Republicanism, there is a certain courage in his line of attack upon Douglas.  Lincoln is quick to draw the distinction, labeling Republicans as fully cognizant of slavery as a “moral, asocial or a political wrong.”[25]  It is Democratic apathy that Lincoln goes after, implying that not always voting slavery down might be as dangerous as always championing the institution. Lethargy “removed the moral evil of slavery” that Lincoln could exploit.[26]  Labeling the Democratic party a platform of narrowing virtues for all involved, it had become “an unqualified evil to the negro, to the white man, to the Soil, and to the State.”[27]  This was the future of a Dred Scott-led nation, whereby Lincoln is implicit, stating “to me, the idea is boldly suggested that slavery is better than freedom.”[28]  Following a swift historical argument, connecting Republican views to the bedrock of Founding thought, Lincoln again returns to his central challenge of what is just: advocacy for Judge Douglas is only rational by admission “that slavery is good and as right as freedom.”[29]

  Lincoln was creating a moral trap.  Many Americans took for granted that the relationship between race and power was fixed, with whites the perpetual winners. Lincoln saw that he could win over old Whigs and perhaps Democrats if he shook them of their antebellum faiths, perhaps slyly using the racial fears that underlie the slavery debate for his own uses.  Henry Clay had had a marked effect of Lincoln’s examination of slavery; Lincoln once lawyerly wrote that slavery based on race was a flimsy and easily-turned claim, that color was relative,and finally that slavery is similarly nonsensical according to intellectual abilities, if applied fairly to all people.[30]  The genesis of Lincoln’s closing argument was to first channel “our dear old leader” Clay.[31]  In three parts, Lincoln used a 1849 Clay letter to appeal to a forgotten moderation, in which Clay had called for “a system of gradual emancipation.”[32]  While Lincoln’s listeners were safe from becoming slaves themselves to someone whiter or smarter, it could be used as an effective weapon to destroy fallacies. And the argument might formulate doubt in Democratic supporters of a compromised Douglas’ wider intentions- “the logical consequences of the Dred Scot decision”- that could one day be used against whites.[33]  The Alton Weekly Courier comments that Lincoln was “earnestly pressing the material advantages and moral considerations” found in Clay’s words.[34]

  From Clay, Lincoln pivoted directly to Douglas, lampooning the newness of popular sovereignty and Douglas’ claim on the policy. If indeed it simply means the right “to govern themselves,” the Nebraska bill is then uselessly redundant.[35]  Lincoln connects self-governance to an age-old ideal “indeed before Columbus,” and set down with firmness in the Declaration of Independence.  “If [“consent of the governed”] is not Popular Sovereignty” Lincoln states, “then I have no conception of the meaning of the words.”[36]

  Having claimed the definition of popular sovereignty for the Republican cause, Lincoln attempts to alienate Douglas and is still suggesting a vague pro-slavery conspiracy he alluded to the House Divided speech.  Lincoln is in the middle of a persuasive transition at Edwardsville, moving from this “Stephen, Franklin, Roger, and James” plot  from June.[37]  In less than a month, at Galesburg, Lincoln would instead fully rest his case on the moral case against slavery.[38]  Here Lincoln is stark in his assessment, connecting Douglas to General Cass’ 1848 Nicholas letter.  Rhetorically asking again what was Douglas’contribution, Lincoln answers with “He invented a name for Gen. Cass’ old Nicholas on letter dogma.”[39]  The Democrat’s “discovery” of popular sovereignty becomes a cover for racism and slavery.  That Lincoln makes this point with numerous ethnophaulisms might be explained by 1) seeing it as a device to drive home the dehumanizing nature of the Douglas’ stance 2) rousing the old Whigs out of complacency (with the shock value of black epithets in 1858 Southern Illinois being admittedly low).

  Lincoln is also graphic in his prognostication of a future Dred Scot II, intimately prosecuting a poisoned mindset that just as easily can be turned on white America:

“And when, by all these means, you have succeeded in dehumanizing the negro; when you have extinguished his soul in this world and laced him where the ray of hope is blown out as in the direction of the damned, are you quite sure that the demon you have roused will not turn and rend you?”[40]

“With irony so sad it is musical and with sentences crowded with implications” is how Carl Sandburg characterizes Lincoln’s moving prediction.[41]  This, Lincoln implies, is what awaits with Douglas, and “public opinion in 1858 would not stand for a second Dred Scott decision.”[42]  Like Clay, Lincoln is also prepared to brush away his audience’s possible rebuttal that whites are well protected from such calamity.  For this parry Lincoln turns inspirational and high minded, asking where our safety truly comes from.  “It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coats, our army and our navy,” Lincoln warns. “These are not our reliance against tyranny.”[43]  The irony of this ideal is worth noting, as the future president would wield massive military power against Confederate“tyranny” in defense of the Constitution. Returning to his opening characterization of the Republican party,Lincoln dismisses forceful defense in favor of “the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men.”[44]  Lincoln takes a final turn however, closing with a dark warning.  “Familiarize yourself with the chains of bondage and you prepare to your own limbs to wear them.”[45]  Lincoln casts himself throughout as a moderate and Douglas the radical.  This aligns with the idea that in the debates following Freeport “Lincoln now has Douglas where he wants him and proceeds to drive him further and further into the corner.”[46] Sandburg perhaps guilelessly states that Lincoln’s Edwardsville message could appeal to“the young people.  The fifteen- and sixteen-year-old boys who had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”[47]

  The Alton Weekly Courier reprinted the Edwardsville address five days later.  While Lincoln’s walk down Main Street and arrival at the courthouse was tentative, the paper reported numerous positive remarks from the crowd throughout the speech.  “Cries of ‘Yes, yes’” replied to Lincoln’s question of whether the opening “question is not satisfactorily answered.”[48]  Similarly, Lincoln’s re-branding of popular sovereignty was met with “great applause and laughter” and the speech was closed with “loud applause.”[49]  Herndon’s take on the day is mythic, telling of people “great impressed” of the “tall, gaunt, earnest man” that was“appealing to his old Whig friends” if only they might “lift up to level.”  Lincoln is a visionary and already-martyr,marked at Edwardsviile with “high destiny and tragic death veiled from our eyes.”[50]  Gillespie himself spared Lincoln no compliments in the years following the Civil War, sharing that “I am very sure Mr. Lincoln was not aware of his own abilities and standing.”[51]

  Lincoln’s time in Edwardsville was brief. “Late in the afternoon” Lincoln was already heading to his next stop, Gillespie driving him east towards Highland.[52] Along the way Lincoln’s thoughts returned to Douglas. Gillespie inquired why Lincoln had not employed anecdotes in his delivery, “knowing Lincoln’s power of using them.”  Lincoln merely replied that “the occasion was too grave and serious.”[53]  In another exchange Gillespie complimenting Lincoln on his ability to “find new things to say everywhere” while Douglas merely “parroted.” Lincoln was reticent. “Popular sovereignty is the one to win on,” Lincoln replied to Gillespie,allowing for Douglas’ consistency, yet “the subject kept enlarging and widening” in Lincoln’s mind.[54]

  Edwardsville continued in its relative moderation that speaks to its geographical location in the following years. The Edwardsville history rightly categorized the town and county as closely balanced.  Lincoln would win the county in 1860, but not in the following campaign.  While the town never “put up a specific monument commemorating the Civil War or Abraham Lincoln as in the North, it  also sent fewer citizens to fight for the Confederacy than most communities in Egypt.[i]  The Democratic party “remained powerful in Edwardsville during the war,” to later see Republicans make gains.[ii]  The day itself that Lincoln spent in Edwardsville often ignored between the pillars of Freeport and Jonesboro, yet the few yet powerful words he spoke are often included in compilations on democracy and his best works.  The Edwardsville address shows an introspective and dynamically direct Lincoln slowly showing his moralistic hand and becoming bolder in presenting his anti-slavery convictions that would later serve him well in the presidency.


[1]Ellen Nore and Dick Norrish Edwardsville, Illinois: An Illustrated History(St.Louis: G. Bradley Publishing 1996) 35-36.

[2]Allen C. Guelzo.  “Houses Divided:Lincoln Douglas, and the Political Landscape of 1858.”  Journal of American History.  (2) 2007, 393.

[3]Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln A Life (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2008), 509.

[4]David Zarefsky. “‘Public Sentiment is Everything’: Lincoln’s View of Political Persuasion.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.  2 (1994): 31.

[5]Zarefsky, “Public Sentiment is Everything’: Lincoln’s View of Political Persuasion.” 31.

[6]Ellen Nore and Dick Norrish, Edwardsville, Illinois: An Illustrated History,36.

[7]Curiously, the Edwardsville city website omit’s the May 18

the visit,stating he came only as a young lawyer, and then on September 11, 1858.

[8]David Donald.  Lincoln (New York:Simon and Shuster, 1995), 84-85.

[9]Nore, 36

[10]Nathaniel Wright Stephenson, An Autobiography of Abraham Lincoln.  (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1926)159.

[11]Stephenson, An Autobiography of Abraham Lincoln, 159.

[12]Nore, 36.  The Lincoln Log, an online chronology of Lincoln’s daily activities, lists “Lincoln speaks at Edwardsville at 1 p.m.  This however, could have just been his appointed arrival time from Alton.

[13]William Henry Herndon and Jesse William Weik, Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, Volume II (New York: D. Appleton and Company), 114.

[14]Nore, 36.

[15]Nore, 36.  Both structures still survive.  The former Matthew Gillespie house is at 606 N. Main, while a remodeled Haskett’s Tavern (later the Wabash Hotel) is just north at 1101 N. Main.

[16]Nore, 36-37.

[17]Nore, 37.

[18]Nore, 37.

[19]Nore, 37;  Carl Sandburg.  Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years, Volume II. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1926), 135.

[20]Herdon, Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, p. 114

[21]Nore, 37.

[22]Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln A Life, 509.

[23]Abraham Lincoln.  The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, (New York: FQ Books, 2010), 14.

[24]Abraham Lincoln. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 92. In another version of the speech Lincoln first quickly asides with “lest I forget [the question], I will give you my answer before proceeding with the line of argument I had marked out for this occasion.”

[25]Lincoln.  The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, 14.

[26]Zarefsky, 29.

[27]Lincoln.  The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, 14.

[28]Lincoln.  The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, 14.

[29]Lincoln.  The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, 14.

[30]Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln A Life, 510. As noted by Burlingame, the 1849 letter by Henry Clay is instrumental in Lincoln’s argument, Clay stating “the wisest in the word could rightfully reduce all other men and women to slavery.”

[31]Lincoln. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3, 93.

[32]Lincoln. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3, 93.

[33]Lincoln.  The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, 93.

[34]Alton Weekly Courier, “Speech at Edwardsville, Illinois,” September 16,1858.

[35]Lincoln. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3. 94.

[36]Lincoln. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3, 94.

[37]Abraham Lincoln, The Essential Lincoln: Speeches and Correspondencesed.Orville Vernon Burton (New York, Hill and Wang, 2009), 42

[38]Zareksky, 30.

[39]Lincoln. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3, 94.

[40] Lincoln. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3, 95.

[41]Sandburg. Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years, Volume II, p. 135.

[42]Zarefsky,  29

[43]Lincoln.  The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, 15.

[44]Lincoln.  The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, 15.

[45]Lincoln.  The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, 15-16.

[46]Stephenson, 164.

[47]Sandburg, 135.

[48]Weekly Courier, September 16, 1858.

[49]Weekly Courier, September 16, 1858.

[50]Herdon, 114.

[51]Douglas Wilson,  Rodney O. Davis Herndon’s Informants, 132.

[52]Nore, Edwardsville, Illinois, 37.

[53]Donald L. Wilson, Herndon’s Informants, 181. 

[54]Herdon, 96.


55 Nore, 43.

56 Nore 43; 36.

Works Cited

Alton Weekly Courier.  “Speech at Edwardsville, Illinois.”  September 16, 1858.

Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln A Life. Baltimore: The John Hopkins
University Press, 2008.

Burton,Orville Vernon.  The Essential Lincoln: Speeches and Correspondence. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.

Donald,David.  Lincoln.  New York: Simon and Shuster, 1995.

Guelzo, Allen C..  “Houses Divided: Lincoln Douglas, and the Political Landscape of 1858.” Journal of American History.  (2) 2007, 391-417.

Herndon,William Henry & Jesse William Weik.  Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a   Great Life, Volume II, Springfield: The Herndon Lincoln Publishing  Company,1896.

Herndon,William Henry & Jesse William Weik.  Herndon’s Informants: Letters  Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln. ed. Douglas L. Wilson, Rodney O. Davis, and Terry Wilson. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Lincoln,Abraham.  The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3.  New York:  Wildside Press, 2008.

Lincoln,Abraham.  The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5.  New York: FQ Books, 2010.

Nore, Ellen and Dick Norrish.  Edwardsville: An Illustrated History St. Louis: G. Bradley Publishing, 1996.

The Lincoln Log.  September 11, 1958. www.thelincolnlog.org/view/1858/9/11

Sandburg,Carl.  Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years, Volume II. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1926.

Stephenson,Nathaniel Wright.  An Autobiography of Abraham Lincoln. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1926.

Zarefsky,David. “‘Public Sentiment is Everything’: Lincoln’s View of Political Persuasion.”  Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. 2 (1994): 31-33.

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