Events in Illinois History - Online Data



in Decatur, IL

by Otto R. Kyle

Transcribed by K. Torp

lincoln statue

In June or July 1830, Abraham Lincoln, then 21 years old, made an impromptu speech on the edge of Decatur's public square, now Lincoln Square. The speech has been acclaimed Lincoln's first speech that got public attention.

Lincoln was barefooted as he came from a nearby farm to join a gathering of people in the square listening to a candidate named Posey making an address. The candidate was John F. Posey of Fayette County, a candidate for the state legislature from the district including Macon County. The square was just a year old and still had stumps of trees that had been cut. There was the usual gathering of wagons and horses as well as people shopping and local townspeople living nearby.

The first wide-spread mention of the Lincoln speech in the Square was in William D. Howell's 1860 campaign biography of Lincoln. Howell wrote about 1150 words concerning the event without giving a source of his information but the account has been accepted as authentic since Lincoln read the account and he did not make any corrections in it.

Howell's biography account says the listeners, disappointed there was no liquor dispensed, persuaded Lincoln to make a response to Posey, "Lincoln took the stump with characteristic modesty", says the Howell report, and begging his friends not to laugh if he broke down, treated very courteously the two speakers who had preceded him, discussed the questions of politics, and in his peroriation eloquently pictured the future of Illinois."

John Hanks is reported as having said that he was the one who provided a box to stand on and persuaded Lincoln to speak. Hanks said Lincoln's speech was on the need of navigation of the Sangamon River.

Mrs. Jane Martin Johns in her "Personal Recollections" published in 1912, gives another version of the address. Mrs. Johns came to Decatur in 1849, nineteen years after the Lincoln Square address. There were a number of persons in Decatur who could give her an account of the event. Mrs. Sarah Powers Durfee told Mrs. Johns a story that had been told to her by Mrs. Durfee's mother, Mrs. Almira A. Powers. Mrs. Powers heard the story from Mrs. Landy Harrell who heard Lincoln make the address.

This version of what happened is that Lincoln was working in a field a short distance from the square. Hearing the cheering, he left his oxen in a fence corner and went to the square. He was dressed in a "hickory'' shirt, tight tow linen pants, a straw hat and was bare-footed. Lincoln listened until the speaker finished and then mounted "'a splintered stump" and made a speech that pleased the crowd.

The "Centennial History of Decatur and Macon County, published in 1930, repeats Mrs. Harrell's version of the Lincoln speech. Details about what took place vary but there is no doubt about a speech being made by the barefoot Lincoln, a speech William Powell thought important enough to be included in the first Lincoln political biography nationally distributed.

"Herndon's Lincoln", by William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, published in 1889 says John Hanks personally described to him (Herndon) what happened at Lincoln's "first attempt at public speaking after landing in Decatur". Hanks is quoted as saying that he was the one who turned down a box for Lincoln to stand on.

Carl Sandburg in his monumental history accepted the Herndon version and devoted one sentence to the event.

Reinhard H. Lutin in his 700 page one volume "The Real Abraham Lincoln", published in 1960, says George Close, a "Macon County resident" told about Posey not "treating", that Lincoln spoke of the future of Illinois and that W.L.W. Ewing, future acting governor of Illinois and a U.S. Senator, who was present with Posey declared Lincoln was "a bright one". Luthin calls the Lincoln speech "his baptism on the electioneering stump".

Whatever his exact words., the Lincoln Square speech of 1830 is acknowledged by historians as the real start of the Lincoln political career.

(Prepared for the Heritage Committee, Inc, by Otto Kyle, author of "Abraham Lincoln in Decatur" for the occasion of the unveiling of the Lincoln Monument, in Lincoln Square on October 12, 1968.)

Posted in the Central Illinois Genealogical Quarterly
November 1968, Volume IV, Number 4

Dedication of Lincoln's Tomb
George L. Cashman
Curator, Lincoln Tomb, Springfield, IL

Posted in the Central Illinois Genealogical Quarterly
November 1968, Volume IV, Number 4

The Lincoln Tomb was officially dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln on October 15, 1874, nine years and six months to the day after his death, 28 years and 6 months to the day since he moved from New Salem to Springfield

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