On the skills section of Abraham Lincoln’s resume, badass orator ranks near the top. During the course of his career, the 16th president excelled at giving profound, rousing, and memorable speeches that have been engraved on the soul of the country.
But while schools across the U.S. instill their students with the historic lines from the Gettysburg Address, while politicians quote his second inaugural address in the hallowed halls of Congress, and scholars call on his “House Divided” declamation to highlight our current struggles, they are missing the firepower of what was allegedly the best speech Lincoln ever made.
At 5:30 p.m. on May 29, 1856, Lincoln took the stage in Major’s Hall in Bloomington at the meeting that would become known as the first Republican State Convention of Illinois.
The assembly had come together to discuss their opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a bill that allowed new states to decide whether slavery would be legal within their borders.
During the evening, the state’s Republican Party was officially established and launched in grand fashion—following the assembly, the Illinois Republicans would go on to win the state governorship and Lincoln would be catapulted into the spotlight as one of the party’s top state leaders.
But first, he took the podium in front of a crowd of less than 1,000 people. Accounts differ as to whether this move was expected. Some say the crowd called for Lincoln and he obliged, rising to give an impromptu speech. Others contend that he had teased his appearance to some attendees the night before the assembly.
Either way, Lincoln spoke off the cuff, with no more than a notecard with a few points scrawled across it. What happened next, according to legend, blew the minds of everyone in attendance.
Lincoln spoke for 90 minutes in what most recalled was an inspired and severe indictment of slavery employing the strongest language he would ever use on the subject.
In no uncertain terms, he spelled out the immorality of the institution and the danger of allowing it to spread to new states; he decried the decision to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Act and overturn the Missouri Compromise that had previously limited the practice; and he vowed to join any fight committed to ending slavery.
One delegate in the audience recalled that Lincoln spoke slowly and deliberately until he wanted to emphasize a point that he was particularly passionate about, when he would walk toward the crowd “and with a peculiar gesture hurl the point, so to speak, at his audience.”
And the audience ate it up. Reports from the night testify that Lincoln received rousing rounds of applause throughout his address.
“When he finished 90 minutes later, the power of his oratory had fused the cheering audience into the Republican party, united against the common foe, insistent that slavery must not spread, and permanently firm in loyalty to the Constitution and to the Union,” wrote Robert Howard in the Chicago Tribune in 1946 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the speech.
But while we know the general content of the speech and the atmosphere of the room, the commanding words that Lincoln spoke have been lost to history. Despite the presence of reporters in the room, only very small bits and pieces of the speech remain.
The legend that has grown around the event attributes this odd outcome to the power of Lincoln. His speech was so enthralling, the story goes, that it hypnotized the reporters tasked with covering it into stilling their pens and instead watching with rapt attention. They submitted general reports of the speech to their editors, but no transcripts or large quotations survived.
While the notion that Lincoln mesmerized reporters into forgetting their jobs is a fun one to imagine, it’s a bit far-fetched to believe that an entire gaggle of journalists failed to record the most important speech of the evening.
The more likely theory contends that Lincoln knew how inflammatory his rhetoric against slavery was going to be and he asked the attendees that night to keep things off the record, so to speak. It was more of a listening party.
Tempers across the nation were running high as people debated the morality and future of slavery. The grave disagreements and tensions between factions that would lead to the breakout of Civil War less than five years later were already being established.
Knowing this, Lincoln and the leaders of the new party feared the immediate backlash if a wider audience got wind of the fierce rhetoric being used to oppose slavery.
In order to end the practice, they were going to have to forge alliances and proceed with some caution in the dangerous political climate of the day.
A reporter for the Weekly Courier of Alton wrote on June 5, 1856, that, along with a staunch call to end slavery, Lincoln insisted “that the Union must be preserved in the purity of its principles as well as in the integrity of its territorial parts. It must be ‘Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.’”
Lincoln, for his part, never made a written copy of his remarks—he didn’t prepare the speech in advance or take the time to record it after the fact.
That didn’t stop at least one attendee from trying to claim some of the glory. In 1896, Henry Clay Whitney published in McClure Magazine what he claimed was the full text of Lincoln’s lost speech.
While it received a lot of attention and support at the time, Lincoln’s secretary John George Nicolay and his son Robert Lincoln both announced that they doubted this was a faithful transcription. The Whitney version was officially debunked by scholar Paul M. Angle years later.
Lincoln’s legacy is tied firmly to his efforts to end slavery while keeping the states united. But, perhaps his strongest words concerning his work on these issues have been lost forever, dying with the memories of those who were lucky enough to be witnesses that night in Bloomington.
In a lecture he gave years later, Lincoln’s former law partner William Herndon said, “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.”