Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Abraham Lincoln spoke at Major's Hall in Bloomington, Illinois in 1856 and this 'Lost Speech' was believed to be found... or not? You decide.

The 'Lost Speech' of Abraham Lincoln was delivered at the first Republican State Convention of Illinois, at Major's Hall (William Trabue Major[1])117 East Front Street, Bloomington, Illinois, on the 29th of May,1856. The excitement caused among the audience by the speech was so great that the reporters forgot to take their notes, and for many years it was generally supposed that no record of the speech had been preserved.

It appears, however, that Mr. H.C. Whitney, then a young lawyer of Illinois, did take notes of the speech, which he preserved, and after a lapse of forty years they were transcribed and were published in "McClures Magazine" for September, 1896, together with a letter from Mr. Joseph Medill, of the "ChicagoTribune," who was present at the Convention and confirms the accuracy of Mr. Whitney's report.

Rediscovery of Lincoln's 'Lost Speech' debunked.[2]
An illustration of Major's Hall before the fire that destroyed the 3rd floor.
Disaster struck Major’s Hall on November 18, 1872, when the third story was lost to a fire that likely started on the second story. Both floors were occupied by upholsterer and mattress manufacturer J.W. Morris & Company.
Major's Hall after the fire that destroyed the 3rd floor.
The building survived, and after being extensively reconstructed, welcomed back business tenants. Despite the fire, the building remained occupied over the years, with the first floor home to various grocers and tailors, and other businesses, ranging from a saloon to a barber and beauty shop. 

Major’s Hall fell to the wrecking ball in February 1959 for surface parking (the additional parking deck would come much later).

A Cluster of 6 Plaques Honor the Major's Hall location:
(Plaque 1)
Major's Hall
Erected 1852 by William Trabue Major
Razed 1959

(Plaque 2)
Illinois Republican Party born in Major's Hall.
"I have supposed myself since the organization of the Republican Party at Bloomington, in May 1856, bound as a party man by the platforms of the party then and since." Statement by Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Freeport Auguste 27, 1858.

(Plaque 3)
I. S. N. U.
Major's Hall both in spirit and in fact nurtured Illinois State Normal University founded in the times, and with the same high purpose as Lincoln's concern for people. the University held its first classes in Major's Hall. Here from October 5, 1857 to June 1860, the University spent its first three years. The imprint of Major's Hall remains strong upon the school.

(Plaque 4)
"We say to our southern brethren, 'We won't go out of the union and you shant.'" Generally accepted as the concluding statement of Abraham Lincoln's "Lost Speech" made here on May 29, 1856.

(Plaque 5)
This tablet marks the site where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous "Lost Speech" May 29, 1856. Placed by Lettia Green Stevenson Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution, May 29 1918.

Read: Abraham Lincoln's Lost Speech of May 29, 1856.

[1] William Trabue Major (1790–1867) was a prominent religious leader in Bloomington, Illinois in the mid-19th century. He founded the First Christian Church, affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, and built the city's first public meeting hall, Major's Hall, which hosted an early convention of the Illinois branch of the Republican Party and became best known as the site of "Lincoln's Lost Speech."

Major was born in Kentucky in 1790, a son of John Major and Judith Trabue. He moved to Illinois in 1835. He had begun as a Baptist, but disagreed with their beliefs that supported slavery. He changed his affiliation to the "Campbellites," as the Disciples of Christ denomination was then known by, and founded the First Christian Church of Bloomington in 1837.

Initially he and his wife, the former Margaret Allen Shipp, held services in their home. In 1840, they opened a wooden church building near the corner of Front and East Streets just south of the downtown area. In 1852, they opened a public meeting hall next door to the church, which he named "Major's Hall." The Hall received much attention in 1856, when the Illinois branch of the fledgling Republican Party held a convention on the building's third floor, featuring frequent Bloomington visitor Abraham Lincoln. The future President's fiery, influential anti-slavery speech has no known transcript, and became known as "Lincoln's Lost Speech," until forty years later when lawyer Mr. H.C. Whitney's notes of the lost speech were published in "McClures Magazine" in the September, 1896 issue.

In 1857, Major's Hall became the first home of Illinois State Normal University, which the teachers college occupied until the schools new campus was opened in Normal, Illinois in 1861. Also in 1857, the Majors dedicated a new, brick-clad building to house First Christian Church, at the corner of Jefferson Street and what is now Roosevelt Street. The current sanctuary, opened in 1959, is the third church structure on that site.

Major died in 1867 as a prominent citizen of the city. He and Margaret, who had produced nine children between them, are buried in Evergreen Cemetery. 

[2] Rediscovery of Lincoln's 'Lost Speech' debunked.
By Bill Kemp, McLean County Museum of History, July 17, 2016
Many local residents have heard something about Abraham Lincoln’s so-called “Lost Speech,” delivered in downtown Bloomington on May 29, 1856.

Yet most folks don’t know the story about the time when the Lost Speech was purportedly found. That was in the 1890s, and for a few decades after its apparent reemergence the no-longer-lost Lost Speech began appearing in Lincoln biographies and published collections of his writings.

Confused? OK, let’s start at the beginning!

One could make a strong case that the single most important event in local history — at least from a national perspective — was Abraham Lincoln’s keynote address before some 1,100 delegates and supporters of the “State Convention of the Anti-Nebraska Party of Illinois.”

That mouthful may not sound like a big deal, but members of this “Anti-Nebraska Party” were there to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its threat to spread slavery into northern territories.

Disparate Anti-Nebraska groups — abolitionists, anti-slavery Whigs like Lincoln, disaffected Democrats, German immigrants, and even nativist “Know Nothings” — fused to form the Republican Party and halt slavery’s westward extension.

That evening in late May 1856, at Major’s Hall on Front Street, Lincoln became the unassailable leader and moral voice in this new political movement. More than one observer called it the finest speech of his life. And since there was no known transcription of what he said, it became known as Lincoln’s “Lost Speech.”

Until the 1890s, that is. That was when Henry Clay Whitney, a former colleague of Lincoln’s on the Eighth Judicial Circuit, announced that he had taken notes during the entire 90-minute speech. He then cobbled together these 40-year-old jottings into what he claimed was a reasonable 8,000-word or so reproduction of the immortal address.

The Lost Speech was no longer lost! Or so it seemed. Whitney’s version first appeared in the September 1896 issue of McClure’s Magazine, a popular periodical of the day.

Although this rediscovered Lost Speech is now generally regarded more as a work of imagination rather than historical fact, Whitney was no charlatan. He settled in Urbana in 1854 and practiced law, and there he met Lincoln. The two men struck up a friendship and Whitney often accompanied Lincoln on the circuit. In fact, the two even traveled from Danville to Decatur and then north on the Illinois Central Railroad to Bloomington for the May 29, 1856, political convention.

The evening before his speech, Lincoln spoke from the Pike House, a popular hotel at the corner of Center and Monroe streets in Bloomington. He told those gathered that he had prepared a speech for the convention. Yet he did not read from a prepared text the following day at Major’s Hall, and so it appears the speech was never written out, at least by him.

Whitney or no Whitney, we do know some of what Lincoln said that evening thanks to contemporary newspaper accounts. The most thorough report comes from the June 5, 1856, Weekly Courier of Alton. “[Lincoln] was here ready to fuse with anyone who would unite with him to oppose slave power,” the Courier reported. Lincoln also declared “that the Union must be preserved in the purity of its principles as well as in the integrity of its territorial parts.”

Additional detailed coverage appeared in the Belleville Weekly Advocate. Lincoln, according to the Advocate, criticized “National Whigs,” a term for members of his former party who, in the name of national unity, were willing to aid and abet slavery’s expansion into northern territories heretofore free.

OK, we know some of what Lincoln said that night. But why was no full transcription made by one of the many newspapermen in the audience?

The story goes that the power of Lincoln’s oratory caused mesmerized reporters to throw down their pens and live, as Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon put it, “in the inspiration of the hour.”

Perhaps. Yet others find such an explanation a mite too fanciful.

“The truth of it is the great mass of the leaders felt that Lincoln made too radical a speech and they did not want it produced for fear it would damage the party,” recalled Eugene F. Baldwin, a Peoria newspaper editor and publisher writing in 1908. “Lincoln himself said he had put his ‘foot into it’ and asked the reporters to simply report the meeting and not attempt to record his words and they agreed to it.”

Regardless, Whitney claimed he kept his head and took notes all the while, though he was no stenographer and didn’t know shorthand. Whitney’s greatest ally in the ensuing debate was Joseph Medill, a Chicago Tribune editor who attended the Bloomington convention.

“I have carefully and reflectively read it,” Medill said in defense of Whitney’s Lost Speech, “and he has reproduced with remarkable accuracy what Mr. Lincoln said, largely in his identical language and partly in synonymous terms.”

Yet despite Medill’s assurances, Whitney’s text is patently problematic on several fronts. First, it failed to incorporate contemporary newspaper accounts given by both the Courier and the Advocate. In other words, the precious little of the Lost Speech that is indeed verifiable does not appear in Whitney’s version.

Detractors also note that Whitney’s book, "Life on the Circuit with Lincoln," makes no mention of taking notes during Lincoln’s Lost Speech, this despite its publication four short years before the “rediscovered” Lost Speech saw the light of day.

Others were bolder in their criticism of Whitney. “Not only is his restoration devoid of Lincoln’s style and phraseology, but its trustworthiness is evinced by two or three anachronisms,” concluded John Nicolay, one of Lincoln’s trusted White House secretaries who attended the Bloomington convention. “The claim that this ‘Lost Speech’ has any historical value whatever is simply absurd.”

On May 29, 1900, a number of eyewitnesses to the Lost Speech, including John M. Palmer, a leading Illinois Democrat who became an anti-Nebraska leader, and George Schneider, a Bavarian-born newspaper editor from Chicago who represented German Republicans, gathered in Bloomington for the 44th anniversary of the Anti-Nebraska convention. Palmer, Schneider and others were unanimous in their dismissal of Whitney’s rediscovery. “Many now living heard the great speech,” they declared in a joint statement, “and, where Mr. Lincoln was so well known and loved, all his friends consider the speech still lost.”

One of the greatest takedowns of Whitney comes from Isaac Newton Phillips, a Bloomington attorney and later court reporter for the Illinois Supreme Court.

Whitney employed “many phrases and sentences” of Lincoln’s in his “alleged reproduction,” Phillips acknowledged in 1901. Yet “wherever the speech departs from the phraseology known from other evidence to be that of Lincoln it drops into the very dishwater of sheer mediocrity.”

Concluded Phillips: “It is high time this bald literary fraud had been given its quietus.”
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.