Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 2.
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.

Speech at Lewistown, Illinois [1]

August 17, 1858

At two o'clock, Judge Kellogg [2] introduced Mr. Lincoln, who was again greeted with vociferous applause. After the noise had subsided, he commenced and delivered the ablest, and, as I think, the most powerful argument ever heard in Old Fulton. The speechPage  545 was two hours and a half long, yet there seemed to me to be more listeners at the conclusion than at the beginning. Among other things, Mr. Lincoln examined the pretensions of Douglas to the giant mantle of Henry Clay. He said he would lay no claim to the support of the Old Line Whigs of Illinois, because he had been the life-long friend and Douglas the life-long enemy of the great and brave Kentuckian, unless he could show from Mr. Clay's printed speeches that he stood upon the very ground occupied by that statesman, and that Douglas's position was as opposite to it as Beelzebub to an Angel of Light. In proving this point---reading extract after extract from the speeches and letters of Henry Clay, contending nobly and greatly for the ``ultimate emancipation of the slave''---Mr. Lincoln remarked that he believed Douglas was the only statesman of any note or prominence in the country who had never said to friend or enemy whether he believed human slavery in the abstract to be right or wrong.

``All others,'' said he, ``North and South, have at some time or another declared themselves in favor of it or against it. All others have said either that it is right and just, and should therefore be perpetuated, or that it is wrong and wicked, and should be immediately swept from civilized society, or that it is an evil to be tolerated because it cannot be removed. But to Judge Douglas belongs the distinction of having never said that he regarded it either as an evil or a good, morally right or morally wrong. His speech at Bloomington would leave us to infer that he was opposed to the introduction of slavery into Illinois; but his effort in Lewistown, I am told, favors the idea, that if you can make more money by flogging niggers than by flogging oxen, there is no moral consideration which should interfere to prevent your doing so.''


I cannot close this letter without giving your readers a passage from Mr. Lincoln's noble and impressive apostrophe to the Declaration of Independence. This was truly one of the finest efforts of public speaking I ever listened to. It gave to his auditors such an insight into the character of the man as ought to carry him into the Senate on a great surge of popular affection. In my poor opinion, Mr. Lincoln is not only one of the foremost men in the Northwest in the nobility and excellence of his character, the clearness and scope of his intellect, but the peer of any man who has sat in the Senate since the mighty shadows of Webster and Clay ceased to darken the threshold of the Capitol.

Page  546* * * * [3] The Declaration of Independence (said Mr. L.) was formed by the representatives of American liberty from thirteen States of the confederacy---twelve of which were slaveholding communities. We need not discuss the way or the reason of their becoming slaveholding communities. It is sufficient for our purpose that all of them greatly deplored the evil and that they placed a provision in the Constitution which they supposed would gradually remove the disease by cutting off its source. This was the abolition of the slave trade. So general was conviction---the public determination---to abolish the African slave trade, that the provision which I have referred to as being placed in the Constitution, declared that it should not be abolished prior to the year 1808. A constitutional provision was necessary to prevent the people, through Congress, from putting a stop to the traffic immediately at the close of the war. Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: ``We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'' This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. [Applause.] Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children's children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began---so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguishedPage  547 from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built. [Loud cheers.]

Now, my countrymen (Mr. Lincoln continued with great earnestness,) if you have been taught doctrines conflicting with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence; if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur, and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated by our chart of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the Revolution. Think nothing of me---take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever---but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles. You may not only defeat me for the Senate, but you may take me and put me to death. While pretending no indifference to earthly honors, I do claim to be actuated in this contest by something higher than an anxiety for office. I charge you to drop every paltry and insignificant thought for any man's success. It is nothing; I am nothing; Judge Douglas is nothing. But do not destroy that immortal emblem of Humanity---the Declaration of American Independence. [4]


[1]   Chicago Press and Tribune, August 21, 1858. The fragmentary text of this speech as given in the Press and Tribune was widely copied in other papers. Although there are reports in other papers originating from other correspondents, only this one gives a verbatim transcription of any considerable portion of the speech.

Taking the Press and Tribune report at face value, it would seem that the reporter whose initials ``G.P.'' appear at the end, wrote his story at the scene of the speech and transcribed verbatim the peroration on the Declaration of Independence. Since ``G.P.'' cannot be identified, however, Horace White's statement to Herndon in 1865 deserves to be considered. White, a Tribune reporter maintained in 1865 that he had reported the speech as printed in the Press and Tribune, and that it was actually part of the speech delivered at Beardstown on August 12 (supra), which ``inasmuch as my report of the Beardstown meeting had already been mailed I incorporated . . . in my letter from Lewisto[w]n two or three days [actually five days] subsequently.'' (Herndon, II, 418). To offset this recollection of later years is the fact that in none of the reports of the Beardstown speech which have been found, is there any reference to the peroration on the Declaration of Independence, the passage to which White referred in his 1865 statement. White's account also casts some doubt on the verbal accuracy of the passage by maintaining that he had written it from memory the day after it was delivered. ``After I had finished writing I read it to Mr. Lincoln. When I had finished the reading he said, `Well, those are my views, and if I said anything on the subject I must have said substantially that, but not nearly so well as that is said.' '' (Ibid., 417-18).

It is conceivable that White's Lewistown report and the passage from the Beardstown speech were treated as one story under the Lewistown date line. The mystery of the initials ``G.P.,'' however, has not been solved, and the fact that the reports of the Beardstown speech in all other papers make no reference to the passage on the Declaration of Independence leaves considerable doubt concerning White's 1865 statement.

In any event, the passage in question was widely copied in the Republican press, and two years later was reprinted in Republican campaign organs as a high spot in Lincoln's oratory (The Railsplitter, October 10, 1860; Wigwam, October 31, 1860).

[2]   Congressman William Kellogg.

[3]   Asterisks in the source.

[4]   Two concluding paragraphs of ``G.P.'s'' report contain nothing more about the speech.