Lincoln at Peoria

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

Stephen Douglas went on a tour of Illinois to rehabilitate himself after repealing the Missouri Compromise with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and winning so many more friends and admirers by telling the crowd at his own rally to go to hell. The Little Giant didn’t go for a walk of shame. He went around defending himself, eventually with success. It helped that when he got up on stage, Douglas had no one arguing the opposite case. In Springfield, a failed politician and successful lawyer named Abraham Lincoln got up the day after Douglas spoke did and rebutted him. We don’t have those remarks, dating to October 4, 1854. We do have the speech Lincoln gave at Peoria in October 16, where he did not just share space after the fact but actually shared the stage with the Little Giant. Considering that Lincoln (6’4″, 193 cm) had a good foot of height on the Little (5’4″, 163 cm) Giant, it must have been quite a contrast.

I don’t think you could have an event like this today. Douglas spoke for a solid three hours, without even a sound system. I can’t imagine what his throat felt like. He finished to six cheers and a band played. Then people called for Lincoln to have his turn. Lincoln rose and demurred:

I do not arise to speak now, if I can stipulate with the audience to meet me here at half past 6 or at 7 o’clock. It is now several minutes past five, and Judge Douglas has spoken over three hours. If you hear me at all, I wish you to hear me thro’. It will take me as long as it has taken him. That will carry us beyond eight o’clock at night. Now every one of you who can remain that long, can just as well get his supper, meet me at seven, and remain one hour or two later. The Judge has already informed you that he is to have an hour to reply to me. I doubt not but you have been a little surprised to learn that I have consented to give one of his high reputation and known ability, this advantage of me. Indeed, my consenting to it, though reluctant, was not wholly unselfish; for I suspected if it were understood, that the Judge was entirely done, you democrats would leave, and not hear me; but by giving him the close, I felt confident you would stay for the fun of hearing him skin me.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Politicians make cracks like that all the time, but I got a fair smile out of imagining that coming from the grave-voiced Lincoln of so many documentaries.

Lincoln illuminated a good point about period entertainment. I don’t think many contemporary Americans go to political events for the show. Those who do are probably serious news junkies or party diehards for the most part. Back in the nineteenth century, far more people went. You got to see a famous man like Douglas. You got flattery and to hear your foes cursed by men of eloquence. Nineteenth century Americans would come from far around for them, but also for far more obscure figures who would speak at length on far more esoteric topics that few among us would necessarily think of as fun. A good nineteenth century orator could make a healthy living just by touring and giving speeches. Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll did later on in the century. Many British authors did a tour or two of the United States. Three hours listening to someone talk might sound tedious to us. I don’t know if I could take three hours of my favorite comedians comfortably seated at home in front of a television. But they really did it. If they got bored, they could wander off for a while or make their own fun with heckling.

Seven hours, three for each man and then one for a rebuttal from Douglas, apparently asked too much. The crowd happily agreed to take the time to get a bite and take a break before hearing Lincoln. Doubtless some of them came back only to hear the tall, not very good-looking lawyer get his head handed to him by the Little Giant. They’d see the big oaf, who a later critic called a baboon, shown up and go home happy.

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