Thursday, September 17, 2009

Abraham Lincoln in Cincinnati, 150 years ago today

As many interested in the Civil War spend today acknowledging the anniversary of the battle of Antietam (appropriately so, given its all-around import), I shall focus on another event that also occurred on this day, though 3 years before that battle in rural Maryland.

Again, my entry will be of an event that took place locally, and, again, involves that tall native of the Bluegrass State, Abraham Lincoln.

In 1858, Lincoln was still known mostly through Illinois as a local lawyer and politician. His famous debates with the "Little Giant" Stephan A. Douglas earned him some more widespread recognition, but he still had not attained any level of national renown.

As Mr. Douglas continued his Senatorial career in 1859, he published an article defending his views on his beloved popular sovereignty concepts. Ohio Republicans then requested their friend from neighboring Illinois to reply to Douglas' claims and Mr. Lincoln gladly did so.

After stopping at Columbus on the 16th, he made his way through Dayton, Hamilton and, finally, Cincinnati, on the 17th of September, exactly 150 years ago today.

Here he made a long speech, expanding on views he had expressed in the previous speeches, continuing to respond to Douglas' arguments and appealing to the Kentuckians who lived just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, perhaps a state within sight of where Lincoln stood, depending on the heights of local buildings.

He delivered a speech that is not famous as his Gettysburg Address, not called his "greatest speech" as Ronald White Jr. claimed Lincoln's Second Inaugural to be and not one known to have "made Lincoln President" as Harold Holzer's book argues, but this speech continued Lincoln's arguments against popular sovereignty, for the rights of government to control slavery in the territories. He mentioned how the Northwest Ordinance had created fee states, despite Douglas' counterclaims, and yet displayed his own version of moderation, requesting people not to overturn the Constitution, but to uphold it, including the fugitive slave law and to try to defeat the people, such as Douglas, who were abusing and misreading the country's founding document.

A wonderful description of this speech, certainly written better than I can do, is found at this link to an article that appeared in the winter 2008 Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. Author Gary Ecelbarger offers a fascinating insight into not only the speech, but also to how widely it was spread throughout the country, making Lincoln's name more familiar to perhaps thousands of people who had not heard of him previously, with unintended help form Douglas.

Ecelbarger provides strong evidence, including analysis of the voting at the 1860 Republican nomination, showing strong support from Ohio for Lincoln (much stronger than the support he received from New York, the site of the Cooper Union speech) to support his conclusion that "Cincinnati address was not only Abraham Lincoln's most underrated speech, it ranks as one of the most important addresses of his pre-presidential career."

It is an outstanding article and I certainly recommend people read it to get a view of this speech and the argument of how important it truly was to Lincoln's future.

The site of this speech was somewhere near modern day Fountain Square and Government Square in downtown Cincinnati, just across the river from where I live and immediately across the street from the building where I work. I took a stroll over there at lunch today and thought it's the typical urban concrete jungle of high-rise buildings, concrete roads, concrete sidewalks, surrounded by cars, buses, bus stops and ordinary city items, I did get a bit of a special feeling about being on the same ground or at least the same area as Mr. Lincoln was on this exact date. It's certainly not true "hallowed ground" like the land along Antietam Creek, nor it is part of a legendary battlefield or cemetery like where he uttered his few words at Gettysburg, but it did feel special to me to be there, on this day, knowing that probably none of the thousands of people around me knew what I knew. (Or maybe it's sad that such an event is little known – nevertheless, I enjoyed walking around the area, thinking about what had taken place there so long ago.



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