Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lincoln's "Lost Speech" and Science Fiction

The business of the convention being over, Mr. Lincoln, in response to repeated calls, came forward and delivered a speech of such earnestness and power that no one who heard it will ever forget the effect it produced. In referring to his speech some years ago I used the following rather graphic language: "I have heard or read all of Mr. Lincoln's great speeches, and I give it as my opinion that the Bloomington speech was the grand effort of his life. Heretofore he had simply argued the slavery question on grounds of policy--the statesman's grounds--never reaching the question of the radical and the eternal right. Now he was newly baptized and freshly born; he had the fervor of a new convert... 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 divine fires of a soul maddened by the wrong; it was hard, heavy, knotty, gnarly, backed with wrath. I attempted for about fifteen minutes as was usual with me to take notes, but at the end of that time I threw pen and paper away and lived only in the inspiration of the hour. If Mr. Lincoln was six feet, four inches high usually, at Bloomington that day he was seven feet, and inspired at that..."

-Thomas Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and biographer, quoted in Elwell Crissey, Lincoln's Lost Speech (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967)

On the evening of May 29, 1856, at at the Illinois Anti-Slavery Extension convention in Bloomington, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech so powerful that no one in the audience wrote it down. The "Lost Speech" has become one of the great mysteries of American history: exactly what did the future president say at Major's Hall that night to inspire such praise as Herndon's? It's a mystery that's been debated for over a century.

While there have been several attempts to reconstruct the speech, most notably that of Henry Clay Whitney, who was at Major's Hall, but did not publish his reconstruction until 1896, in McClure's Magazine. Even if his reconstruction is close to Lincoln's words, it was Lincoln's forceful and emotional delivery which caused so many to remember the speech.

Wilson Tucker, a science fiction writer who lived in the Bloomington area, wrote a novel, The Lincoln Hunters (New York: Ace Books, 1958), based on that mystery. A team of time travelers from a dystopian world six hundred years in the future go back to 1856 in order to record the Lost Speech. It's not great writing, but it's quite good; the brilliance of the concept makes up for the less-than-stellar prose. The book, while out of print, is available. Amazon Marketplace has copies for one cent (plus $3.99 shipping and handling).

Tucker won't tell you what Lincoln said. It's still a mystery.


Peter said...

Maybe Lincoln, who later took such pains to control how his speeches were transcribed in the papers, wanted this one lost. If Lincoln’s opponents could have misconstrued the speech as advocating slavery’s abolition, he may not have won the nomination over Seward. As it was, as I recall, "A house divided cannot stand" didn't hurt Lincoln much only because Seward's "irrepressible conflict" speech helped sour Seward to Westerners and made him seem unelectable to pragmatic Republicans that year.

steve on the slow train said...

Peter--Some scholars have suggested just that--that Lincoln feared the speech would not play well in southern Illinois and that he worked to suppress the text. (If so, he was probably thinking of the 1858 senatorial contest rather than the 1860 presidential nomination.) Elwell Crissey suggests what I think is a more likely reason:

"...when Lincoln finally mounted the platform at 5:30 o'clock, the convention's business had been disposed of, all speakers scheduled to appear had spoken; Lincoln's call to the platform was intended only to conclude the day with some laughs--nothing more. None of the newspapermen anticipated from this tail-end jokester a serious address; therefore, none of them was prepared to report a serious address. By the time they realized the importance of what Lincoln was saying, the spell of his oratory had them ensnared."

While Lincoln had some notes, the speech was mostly extemporaneous. If the Whitney reconstruction was close to what Lincoln said, the speech would have hurt him in southern Illinois. But with the Anti-Nebraska party, (the term Republican wasn't used to describe the convention), it helped bring the circuit lawyer, one-term congressman, and failed senatorial candidate to the forefront.

Peter said...

That does sound like a more likely reason.

One day I'll have to sit down and read Herndon. I wonder if Lincoln ever anticipated that Herndon would write such an influential biography.

Patry Francis said...

It's amazing (and for a writer a little bit dispiriting) what wonders one cent will buy on Amazon.

This sounds intriguing though. I love the phrase "the spell of his oratory." Even without knowing the words he said, I can sense its power.