Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point
Author: Lewis E. Lehrman
Lewis E. Lehrman’s book, Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point argues that the speech Abraham Lincoln gave at Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854, while arguing against the Kansas-Nebraska act and its main supporter, Stephen A. Douglas, in what was a preview of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, marked the turning point of Abraham Lincoln's speechmaking and his politicial career, especially the issues to which he gave the most attention.
After reading this work, it is hard to disagree with that theme, as Lehrman thoroughly shows how this speech – part of the year of Lincoln’s re-entry into public political debate and campaigning – was made by a more disciplined, studious, serious, mature politician than the one who previously had sometimes reverted to strategies like humor, personal attacks and spontaneous remarks. Lehrman shows that this speech relied on logic, preparation and knowledge of the history of slavery in the United States, and that such devices would also mark most of Lincoln’s future public talks, including the Cooper Union speech of 1860. Instead of focusing on economic policy such as internal improvements and a national bank, Lincoln now began to attack the expansion of slavery and the moral issues surrounding this peculiar institution. Perhaps this will be bit of an exaggeration, but it is almost as if the speech in Peoria was where Lincoln went from being a boy to a man, in terms of his speech-making and public discourse, or at least where he took the single largest step in his political growth to being the man who became President in 1860 and presided during the Civil War.
Lehrman also discusses Lincoln’s career between this speech and the 1860 election. This work almost serves as a political biography of Lincoln from 1854 to 1860, instead of a book about only the speech itself.
I particularly enjoyed chapter four of this book, where Lehrman breaks down the speech, explaining Lincoln’s arguments and how they countered points Douglas and the act’s supporters had made. These pages provide a wonderful and detailed description of the speech and the issues on which it touched, providing a clear picture of the debates between the anti-Nebraska men such as Lincoln and and the act’s supporters, including Douglas.
The other chapter that stood out was the ninth one, where Lehrman shows several historical perspectives about this speech, including some critical comments, such as a few historians who claimed this speech was more about Lincoln’s political ambitions than about any moral disapproval of slavery. Lehrman counters these with some more positive views from other historians, as well as some of his own comments. It was really nice to see the different opinions people have formed about this speech over the years – this chapter was an outstanding addition to this book, and the type of work I have not often seen in other books.
At the end of the book, Lehrman included the entire text of this speech, which I enjoyed reading. Many of the “sound-bite” type comments about it are familiar to Lincoln students, as they are often quoted in books discussing this time period, but seeing them in the context of the entire speech was very helpful.
I do wonder how my perspective may have changed had I read the actual speech first and then read Lehrman’s analysis and review of it. I understand why it was placed at the back of the book, and do not claim it should have been any different, but, with the help of hindsight, I find myself wishing I had thought to read the speech first. Such a strategy might give this book even more power than it already contains.
Throughout the book are discussions of how Lincoln applied his morals and beliefs to his speeches and his work, particularly his dislike of slavery and his insistence that its expansion be disallowed. In this respect, this book would make a good companion to William Lee’s Miller President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, which includes quite a bit of discussion of the moral issues Lincoln faced once in office. I realize Miller’s book is meant as a follow-up to his previous volume Lincoln’s Virtues and serves that purpose well, but having just read his second work just before I read Lehrman’s, I found these two to be very compatible. In fact, I wish I had read Lehrman’s first, then Miller’s, due to the chronology, but having read both of them back-to-back still was a wonderful accident.
Overall, Lewis Lehrman’s Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point is a very fine book that Lincoln students should be happy to have on their shelves. It is very enjoyable and informative, readable, yet well researched. It is an in-depth look at what may have been the turning point of Lincoln’s life and career, and certainly was a key foundation of Lincoln’s future speeches and anti-slavery pronouncements. This is simply a very good book.