Lincoln at Peoria
The Turning Point
Getting Right with the
Declaration of Independence
by Lewis E. Lehrman
Lincoln at Peoria Lewis E. Lehrman Lincoln Institute
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Lincoln At Peoria › Synopsis

Lincoln at Peoria tells the tale of a hardworking lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, at a major crossroad in American history. To understand President Abraham Lincoln, one must understand the private citizen who gave the extraordinary antislavery speech at Peoria on October 16, 1854. This three hour address marked the turning point in his political pilgrimage. It dramatically altered the political career of the speaker and, as a result, the history of America.

Lincoln at Peoria examines the seminal Peoria speech and the historical context in which Lincoln delivered it. While some may argue that Lincoln underwent a transformation after assuming the presidency in 1861, the book’s author Lewis Lehrman contends, “The great divide between the statecraft of his presidential years and his early legislative years originates with the speech at Peoria in 1854.” The book emphasizes the unmistakable wholeness of character, genius, and enterprise to Lincoln’s public life from 1854 to 1865. Lincolnís comprehensive antislavery case made at Peoria inspired his subsequent speeches, public letters and state papers.

The Peoria speech is also Lincolnís primary statement about the nature of early American history and its “peculiar institution” of slavery. All of his moral and historical arguments opposed any further extension of slavery in the American republic, founded, as he argued, upon the Declaration of Independence. That “all men are created equal,” with the “inalienable right to liberty,” was, for Lincoln, a universal principle that Americans must not ignore. Lewis E. Lehrman, the author of this book, insists that “Lincoln believed America must get right with the Declaration of Independence.” In 1876, the centennial year of the Declaration, the great black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass summarized Lincoln’s achievement: “Ömeasuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1837, at the age of twenty eight, having served four terms in the State Legislature and a single term in Congress (1846-1848), Abraham Lincoln substantially withdrew from politics between 1849 and 1854. During these five years, his Springfield law practice prospered. Traveling often by horse and buggy, he became a well-respected litigator on the 8th judicial circuit of Illinois.

Then, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, one of the most explosive congressional statutes of American history, burst upon the Illinois prairie with its passage in May of 1854. Sponsored by the famous Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, this legislation repealed the prohibition on slavery in that section of the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30' parallel — a restriction on the spread of slavery agreed by North and South in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Kansas-Nebraska Act inaugurated an incendiary chapter in the slavery debates of the early American Republic.

In response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln launched his antislavery campaign. He delivered the substance of his arguments at Springfield on October 4, 1854, for which there are only press reports. A longer version came twelve days later at Peoria. The Springfield remarks did not survive, but by preparing them meticulously for publication, Lincoln made sure the Peoria text endured.

The Peoria address was rigorous, logical, and grounded in thorough historical research — marking Lincoln’s reentry into politics and, as he could not know, his preparation for the presidency in 1861.

To understand President Abraham Lincoln, one must understand the Peoria speech of October 16, 1854. It forms the foundation of his politics and principles, in the 1850s and in his presidency. The Peoria speech, delivered in three hours and ten minutes and composed of more than 17,000 words, is reprinted in full in an appendix. It is a rhetorical and literary masterpiece. This speech is the primary statement by Abraham Lincoln about the nature of early American history and its “peculiar institution” of slavery. A quotation from the Peoria Speech introduces each chapter of this book. Lincoln’s arguments at Peoria were a comprehensive repudiation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of May 1854. Sponsored by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, this legislation reversed the congressional prohibition on slavery in that section of the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30' parallel, a restriction on the spread of slavery agreed to in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Lincoln was appalled by this reversal of three decades of settled policy. He was opposed to any further spread of slavery in the American republic, founded as it was upon the Declaration of Independence. That “all men are created equal”, with the “inalienable right to liberty”, was, for Lincoln, a universal principle that Americans must not ignore.

With research and study conducted in the State Capitol, the forty-five-year-old attorney carefully prepared a counterattack on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Years of studying Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, preparing for jury trials, litigating in the courts of Illinois, and researching American political history had prepared Lincoln’s mind and speech to argue the issues raised by the new legislation. To his natural aptitude for learning, Lincoln now joined a mature intellect, a driving instinct for political organization, and a masterful grasp of the facts and logic of the case against Kansas-Nebraska.

Peoria Courthouse
Old Peoria Courthouse