Fridays with Fred: the “Illinois Orator”
The lanky, craggy-faced stranger stepped off the noon train at the Beloit depot and found himself besieged by hundreds of enthusiastic, smiling citizens. Spirited cheers and huzzahs rang out, as many in the crowd recognized the newcomer: only a year ago he’d stirred hearts and minds at a debate in nearby Freeport, Ill.
The “Illinois Orator,” as some newspapers dubbed him, had since lost a senate campaign, but his eloquence stayed in mind. Abraham Lincoln was becoming something of a national figure and the political rumor mill had it that he just might run for president. Mayor John Bannister climbed atop a wooden box to introduce the distinguished visitor, paused with arms outstretched, and promptly forgot his name. A bemused smile on his face, Lincoln doffed his top hat and then leaned down in order to clamber into a waiting carriage. Beloit’s town band struck up a lively tune and followed the carriage to the Bushnell House (later the Goodwin Block) where Lincoln would rest for a couple of hours after his train journey. It was Oct. 1, 1859.
A couple of weeks earlier, Matthew A. Northrop, a Beloit attorney and corresponding secretary of the Beloit City Republican Club, wrote to Lincoln and invited him to visit Beloit a day after his speech at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee. Lincoln was familiar with Beloit, having journeyed through the area in 1832 when serving as a militiaman during the Blackhawk War. He’d also done some legal work for the city and Beloit College. Lincoln accepted and Northrop arranged accommodations and publicity.
Many years later, the Beloit City Republican Club chairman, Chauncey Keeler, recalled the three-block carriage ride to Beloit’s finest hotel, the Bushnell House (built by Beloit College Professor Jackson J. Bushnell) and his subsequent visit with Lincoln:
“No artist could put in a portrait the kindly smile, the hearty hand grasp, or the pressure of that hand on the shoulder as I was about to leave his room when he said: ‘Don’t go away young man. Sit down. I want to visit with you’…He inquired about the manufactories and business interests of Beloit, asked about the college and remarked that an education was a good thing to have…”
While at the Bushnell House, Lincoln apparently ate lunch alone, but he took time to meet with a group of Beloit College students, including Lathrop E. Smith, who remembered the meeting in an 1896 letter to the Beloit Weekly Free Press:
“I was a student in the Beloit college at the time, and an assistant in the Beloit Journal office where I had learned the printer’s trade. A son of Judge Davis of Bloomington, Ill., was also attending the college. As Judge Davis was one of Mr. Lincoln’s most intimate friends, the son, who was well acquainted with Mr. Lincoln, invited a few of his student friends to go with him to the Bushnell house to call on Mr. Lincoln…I remember well how kindly and pleasantly Mr. Lincoln received and entertained us college boys in his room.”
Originally, Lincoln was to have spoken outdoors, but a blustery wind whipping up dust and grit forced the organizers to hastily arrange for an indoor location. They chose recently completed Hanchett’s Hall, located one block south at the northeast corner of State and Broad. Throngs of Beloit Republicans climbed stairs to the third floor and stood up in the cavernous room, where the chilly temperature soon grew comfortable and then stifling. Mayor Bannister, managing to remember Lincoln’s name this time, introduced “Old Abe,” as Illinoisans fondly called him, and then quietly sat down, his ordeal over.
Longtime Beloit College janitor, John B. Pfeffer, then a young man, recalled the 50-year-old Lincoln’s appearance as “old and bony, he looked like a northern woodsman. He was dressed in a white soft shirt with a collar attached, and he had on a loose, homemade suit…Mr. Lincoln had a great big smile which caused wrinkles around his mouth. His face was very thin. There were deep furrows in his forehead. And he had very short whiskers on his chin…altogether, he looked like a farmer dressed up for a circus day.”
Stanley E. Lathrop, Beloit College class of 1867, remembered Lincoln’s high-pitched voice, “but there was distinct articulation, and in certain passages it rang like a bugle call. The opening of his speech seemed hesitating, almost to bashfulness. But gradually he awakened…”
A reporter for the partisan Beloit Journal recorded detailed impressions of Lincoln’s extemporaneous speech:
“[Lincoln] commenced the clearest and most conclusive vindication of Republican principles, as well as the most unanswerable demonstration of the fallacy and utter absurdity of the Douglas doctrines, which we ever listened to…He opened with a statement of the different positions taken by the different political parties of the country. He named 4 existing dem. parties, or, rather, sub-divisions of the great Democratic party…Mr. Lincoln then went on to state the real position of the Republican party. Its underlying principle is hatred to the institution of Slavery; hatred to it in all its aspects, moral, social and political. This is the foundation of the Republican party – its active, life-giving principle.”
Beloit’s “distinguished visitor” also “clashed with the popular sovereignty doctrine,” promoted by his Democratic opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, and commented at length about states’ rights versus moral rights and wrongs. His eloquent words and forthright manner of speaking moved those assembled, including Stanley E. Lathrop, who said, “One very strong impression made by his speech was that he was a man tremendously in earnest, a great soul pleading a great cause.”
The Beloit Journal reporter agreed: “Mr. Lincoln makes no attempt at rhetorical display, but in his simple, unpretentious manner he brings out his arguments with great clearness and force. He was repeatedly applauded while speaking, and as he closed, the audience gave three rousing cheers for Abraham Lincoln.”
After Lincoln’s hour and a half speech, a boisterous crowd followed him to the Bushnell House, where he picked up his grip before traveling by carriage for an evening speech in Janesville.
In 1911, the Beloit chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution purchased a bronze tablet and affixed it to the front wall of Hanchett’s Hall, where it still resides: “In this building Abraham Lincoln addressed the citizens of Beloit October 1, 1859.”