Lost Lincoln - It Was 151 Years Ago Today

"Generally, when he was speakin', he was cool and quiet and things all fit together, and when you come away you was calm - but your head was workin'; but that time up to Bloomington he was like - what's that the Bible calls it? - avengin fire" - yes, sir, that's it, he was like avengin fire." Roland W. Diller, witness to Lincoln's Lost Speech.

It was 151 years ago today in my evacuation location of Bloomington Illinois that Abraham Lincoln gave the best speech of his career and nobody took notes. I went to the museum and asked if they had a copy of Lincoln's Lost Speech. Never hurts to ask. They don't.

The speech has been credited for starting the catapulting him to the presidency and kicking off the Illinois Republican Party. We know Lincoln's flatboat trips to New Orleans were part of what influenced the speech.

During one of those trips, Lincoln ran aground in New Salem, Illinois and as he figured out a way to raise the flatboat and save his cargo, locals came out to watch. They invited him to stop by on his way back through, and he ended up moving there. Lincoln probably mentioned his patented invention to lift a barge that runs aground in his Bloomington speech "Discoveries and Inventions," but the wrong date was listed in the newspaper and the location was hard to find.

A plaque next to our local cafe says so. There's something inherently midwestern about not only commemorating the site of Lincoln's "Inventions" speech, but also why it was a flop. But there is also great encouragement to be found here.

After 10 years in New Orleans, I'm back in Illinois via Katrina. The courthouse museum hosted a costume gala for our musicians' nonprofit (NOMRF). Kelly's Bakery brought the food, A. Renee brought the wine, and we helped a displaced pianist who came down from Chicago. the Lincoln statue outside was resplendent with purple, gold and green balloons.

Lincoln was encouraged here, too. His friend Jesse Fell saw him walking on that same courthouse lawn and brought him into brother's office across the street to to request an autobiography for the campaign. Fell, the grandfather of Adlai Stevenson (who also ran for president from Bloomington because there's something in the water), had been hearing the excitement out East over the Lincoln wiping the floor with Douglas, the country's best known orator at the time.

Lincoln turned him down for a year, and when he changed his mind, he asked that, "If any thing be made out of it, I wish it to be modest."

It contained the following bit of his history, " If a straggler supposed to understand latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizzard-- . . . The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity--"

He downplayed his oratory skills. He once acquitted a New Salem friend's son from a murder charge in the "Almanac Case," using the height of the moon to challenge a witness. Then he refused payment out of friendship.

Lincoln told Fell as to the note's briefness, 'There is not much of it, because there is not much of me."

Fell's family's office was a wall away from our apartment, so we wake up to groups of tourists with headphones peering up at our second floor window on the new Lincoln tour. They also visit the site of the Lost Speech. Of the speech, John Wentworth of the Chicago Democrat said, "I shall not mar any of its fine proportions by attempting even a synopsis of it."

By all reports, the press was either too enthralled to cover the speech, or Lincoln was censored for his early and fiery rhetoric. Whatever the case, no authenticated copy of the speech exists. Bloomington author and Illinois Supreme Court Reporter Isaac Newton Phillips in 1901 discounted a version of the speech written decades after the fact and reiterates, "We do not know what he said."

Druggist Ronald W. Diller, describes it in "Lincoln's Lost Speech, by Elwell Crissey. "I never knew exactly what did happen there. All I recollect is that a the beginnin' of that speech I was settin in the back of the room and when I come to I was hanging' on to the front of the platform. I recollect I looked up and seen Joe Medill [Chicago publisher] standin on the reporters' table lookin foolish-like and heard him say, "Good Lord, boys! I ain't took a note!"

"He knew what he was doing' that night," said Diller. "He knew he was cuttin' loose. He knew them old Whigs was goin' to have it in for him for doin' it, and he meant to show 'em he didn't care a red cent what they thought. He knew there was always a lot of fools in that new party he was joining - the kind that's always takin' up with every new thing comes along to get something to orate about. He saw clear as day that if they got started right that night, he'd got to fire 'em up, so he threw back his shoulders and lit in."

This was table-jumping, string bean Lincoln. All cheekbones because he had not yet taken an 11-year old's advice to grow a beard to lend him gravitas. Possibly the first campaign image consultant, and she did a bang-up job. The Lost Speech did not survive to be dissected, and it could have referenced anything. The courthouse burned to the ground at the turn of the century, much of the Lincoln lore burning with it.

It probably wasn't a religious speech. Upon finding out most of Springfield ministers polled against his candidacy he once said, "I am not a Christian -- God knows I would be one but I have carefully read the Bible, and I do not understand this book. These men well know that I am for freedom in the territories, freedom everywhere as far as the Constitution and the laws will permit, and that my opponents are for slavery. They know this, and yet, with this book in their hands, in the light of which human bondage cannot live a moment, they are going to vote against me. I do not understand it at all.'

There isn't much Lincoln was afraid to talk about. He shared a bed with his friend for years, as he later commented on to Congress when nominating James Speed for Attorney General. Lincoln said he didn't know James as well as his brother. "That is not strange, for I slept with Joshua for four years, and I suppose I ought to know." Historians are still arm-wrestling over the significance of the general storekeeper inviting Lincoln to share his bed when he came in to buy bedding. Don't know, don't care, but Honest Abe indeed.

A 19th Century candidate could be an acknowledged agnostic with a long-term bunk buddy, turbulent marriage, well of genius, streak of melancholy and love of poetry. But when you first ignited a firestorm against slavery, the pencils fell silent.

Some clues to the Lost Speech content may be found in this earlier letter to Joshua. "How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes"

"When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy," the letter concludes.

These thoughts were rising to the surface the year before the speech. He was running against the Know-Nothings so that part of the speech probably wrote itself. I like to think that at some point he said, "Stop owning people now," but it's all pure conjecture.

"His speech was full of fire and energy and force. It was logic; it was pathos; it was enthusiasm; it was justice, equity, truth, and right set ablaze by the devine fires of a soul maddened by the wrong; it was hard, heavy, knotty, gnarly, backed with wrath," said Lincoln's last law partner William Herndon who described it as the best speech of Lincoln's career.

"In ten minutes he was about eight feet tall; his face was white, his eyes was blazin' fire, and he was thunderin, 'Kansas shall be free!' 'Ballots, not bullets!' 'We won't go out of the Union and you shan't.'" Diller described. That last line is the only part of the speech universally agreed upon.

"Generally, when he was speakin', he was cool and quiet and things all fit together, and when you come away you was calm - but your head was workin'; but that time up to Bloomington he was like - what's that the Bible calls it? - avengin fire" - yes, sir, that's it, he was like avengin fire," Diller added.

Slavery has long been abolished but every era has its elephant in the room. At the dawn of this year's hurricane season, New Orleans could use another great orator with the Mr. Go oil barge canal aimed like a bullet into the heart of our city. And hundreds of thousands of us are not home.

A New Hampshire music festival this fall benefiting the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund will be up the road from the Primaries No matter who makes the speeches this time, I promise to take notes.

Because we are long overdue for more avenging fire.

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