Abraham Lincoln was a footsore traveler when he passed through Peoria on his way back to New Salem in July 1832. His horse stolen as his service in the Black Hawk War ended, the 23-year-old made his way from Michigan Territory (now Wisconsin), probably by way of the Galena Trail, a coach road from the north.
Historians record this visit as Lincoln’s first time in Peoria. A traveling companion and messmate wrote that in Peoria, the two bought a canoe and headed downriver to Havana. There, they sold the canoe and finished their journey on foot.
In 1939, Ernest East, founder of the Peoria Historical Society and a director of the Illinois State Historical Society, published “Abraham Lincoln Sees Peoria,” a 37-page report of 17 visits. B.C. Bryner’s book, Abraham Lincoln in Peoria, Illinois, provides personal reminiscences, some conflicting details, and reprints of Lincoln’s famous 1854 Peoria speech.
Bryner’s book, first printed in 1924 on the 70th anniversary of the speech, was reissued in 1926. In 2001, the Friends of the GAR Hall reprinted it with further additions in conjunction with dedication of the commemorative Lincoln statue on Main Street in front of the Courthouse.
“May future generations follow the trails that Lincoln trod!” Bryner exhorted, as he provided some able guidance.
Having returned to New Salem in 1832, Lincoln was a candidate in the August election for the Illinois House—an election he lost. Returning to Peoria in February 1840, Lincoln addressed a rally for William Henry Harrison for president. Fellow Whigs enjoyed dinner at The Clinton House, a hotel located on Adams and Fulton where Bank One now stands.
Tariffs were the big issue in 1844 when Lincoln spoke at the Whig Convention in Peoria. Lincoln favored the protection afforded by the duties levied on foreign imports. He supported Henry Clay in that election and had spoken on his behalf in Peoria earlier in the year.
As a lawyer in 1844, Lincoln was also in the Peoria Courthouse several times on behalf of clients, including settlement of a debt and a divorce case.
Lincoln sometimes stayed at the Planters’ House, later known as the Peoria House, a hotel at the corner of Adams and Hamilton. He didn’t go to bars, we’re told, but was more apt to visit various homes around the city, discussing the abolition movement. Moses Pettengill, a name still recognized, was a particular friend. Lincoln spent time at the old Pettengill house, which stood at the corner of Liberty and Jefferson, an area now part of Peoria’s Civic Center. The abolitionists rallied at Peoria’s Main Street Presbyterian Church, just across the alley adjoining the present Commerce Bank Building. It’s said Lincoln knew every abolitionist in Peoria, but there weren’t many.
In 1847, a delegate to the River and Harbor Convention in Chicago reported to the Boston Courier on his travels. On the stagecoach from Peoria, he encountered Lincoln, a fellow delegate who’d been elected to the U.S. House the previous year. They crossed the river in a ferry boat, the Bostonian reported, “and then all got out and walked up a long hill, turning every now and then to admire the beautiful scenery, which included the town of Peoria, the river and other objects of interest in the distance.”
In October 1848, Lincoln spoke in Peoria on behalf of the presidential candidacy of Gen. Zachary Taylor, a fellow Black Hawk War veteran. The Peoria Democratic Press reported Lincoln discussed various campaign issues including slavery, free soil, and river and harbor improvements, but generally poked fun at both Lincoln and Taylor. The Peoria Weekly Republican ultimately championed Lincoln, while the other remained hostile.
Lincoln argued again for tariffs in September 1852 when he spoke on behalf of Gen. Winfield Scott, who ultimately lost to Franklin Pierce. Lincoln saw tariffs as a way to help develop Missouri iron so railroads wouldn’t need to import rails from England.
Lincoln’s speech on October 16, 1854 in Peoria followed an oration by Judge Stephen A. Douglas, a U.S. Senator. Drawing the line against expansion of slavery, Lincoln argued that opening Kansas and Nebraska to slavery, a Douglas initiative, was manifestly unjust.
Lincoln wrestled with the question of what was to become of freed slaves, but harkened back to the Declaration of Independence and the equality of all. Reinforcing his thoughts, Lincoln wrote his speech from memory on his return to Springfield. The Illinois Daily Journal there published it in seven installments.
Lines from Lincoln’s Peoria speech are inscribed on the exterior wall of the memorial building in Hodgenville, Ky., which preserves his log cabin birthplace. His personal integrity overruled partisanship and the popular whims.
Several more Peoria visits we’re recorded, including a speech for John C. Fremont, another failed presidential candidate. The seven-series Lincoln-Douglas debates that began in 1858 didn’t include Peoria. October 5, 1858 is considered Lincoln’s last visit, when he stayed at the Peoria House.
Lincoln lost Peoria to Douglas in the November 1861 election, with only 46 percent of the vote. In 1864, he lost Peoria to McClellan, with 49 percent.
Despite this apparent lack of support, when Lincoln died in 1865, Peorians responded with a funeral procession, headed by an empty hearse leading a cortege 18 blocks long. Robert G. Ingersoll, despite being a prominent Democrat, delivered a eulogy.
The new Lincoln Library in Springfield is part of the initiatives leading up to the 2009 celebration of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. AA!