Abraham Lincoln came to Peoria 150 years ago to counter U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas and draw the line against the expansion of slavery.
On October 16, the sesquicentennial of this event, reenactors will gather for ceremonies at Peoria’s Court House statue of Lincoln and proceed to the Grand Army of the Republic hall at 416 Hamilton. There, the audience can hear highlights of historic remarks and insights from others of the time.
Lincoln was a circuit-riding lawyer in central Illinois when he accepted the invitation of a group of 20 Peoria Whigs to reply to Douglas’ speech. At the time, Peoria was a heavily Democratic city. Judge Douglas received an enthusiastic welcome and spoke from 2 until 5 that Monday afternoon before turning the Court House platform to Lincoln. Suggesting a break for dinner, Lincoln resumed speaking at 7 p.m., with final remarks by Douglas after 9 p.m.
Douglas’ role in promoting the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act particularly upset Lincoln. He saw it as a repeal of the 1820 Missouri Compromise that excluded slavery in new states to the north and "part and parcel of the larger general question of domestic slavery."
On his return to Springfield three days later, Lincoln wrote out his entire Peoria speech. He included comments that countered Douglas’ final statements and saw it published in seven installments in the Illinois Daily Journal there.
"Comparing it with his later speeches," wrote an 1879 biographer, "we find it to contain not only the argument of the hour, but the premonition of the broader issues into which the new struggle was destined soon to expand."
Douglas never returned to Peoria to go head to head with Lincoln again, though each man spoke in Peoria on succeeding days in July 1858, just prior to their famed series of seven debates. By that time, the Peoria Transcript, decidedly pro-Lincoln, referred to Douglas as "the little demagogue" and noted Lincoln’s comment that they’d meet face to face in debate shortly.
Lincoln hated the spread of slavery "because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself." He puzzled the challenge of freeing all slaves but appealed to a sense of justice and sympathy regarding their natural rights. He characterized slave dealers as snaky and despicable.
"There can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another," Lincoln told the Peoria crowd. "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent."
Lincoln decried the fugitive slave act that carried the legal obligation for northerners to return runaways-"a dirty, disagreeable job." "Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature-opposition to it in his love of justice," Lincoln said.
"Could there be a more apt invention to bring about collision and violence on the slavery question than this Nebraska project is?" he asked.
His statement to "stand with anybody that stands right. Stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong" is engraved over the entrance to the building protecting his birthplace in Hardin County, Ky.
Peorian B.C. Bryner, in his book Abraham Lincoln in Peoria, Illinois secures our knowledge of the events of the day. Bryner’s compilation of personal remembrances-reinforced by the writings and reminiscences of others; supplemented by maps, photos, and artistic works; and strengthened by Lincoln’s own rendering of his speech-constitutes a treasury of insights into Peoria and Lincoln.
Only five years old in 1854, Bryner considered himself a "Douglas man." The pageantry of bands and parade, including white-gowned girls representing the 30-some states and Columbia, awed the young boy. The event became even more memorable when most of the girls spent the night at his house.
In 1924, at the time of the 70th anniversary, he published the various recollections. Two years later, he followed that first edition of 100 copies, with a second, enlarged edition limited to 1,000 copies. In 2001, a third, enlarged edition with a Bryner tribute debuted in time for the dedication of Peoria’s statue of Lincoln drawing the line.
Bryner indicated concern that Lincoln’s Peoria speech wasn’t appreciated in 1854 and 70 years later was still overlooked. His work and that of the Friends of the G.A.R. Hall-notably Connie and Larry Wachtveitl-assure that it’s remembered on this 150th anniversary.
Activities begin at 11 a.m. at the Lincoln statue with the laying of wreaths, short speeches, and a musical program by the 33rd Illinois Volunteer Regimental Band. At 12 p.m., 3 p.m., and 7 p.m., the G.A.R hall showcases reenactors Greg Bergschneider of the Springfield area as Lincoln and Brian Gugala of the Chicago area as Douglas. Tickets cost $5 and can be reserved by calling 691-5462. AA!