Lincoln Visit Kalamazoo: On August 27, 1856, Abraham Lincoln Journeyed to Kalamazoo to Campaign for the Nation's Newest Political Party. the Events Surrounding His Visit Lend Insight into His Rise to Power within the New Republican Party, While the Speech He Gave Reveals the Progression of His Thinking on the Questions of Slavery and the Future of the Nation

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Abraham Lincoln's Kalamazoo visit stemmed from the same antislavery movement that had led to the formation of the nation's first statewide Republican Party two years earlier in Jackson, Michigan. Michigan's antislavery political factions had unified in opposition to the threat that Kansas might enter the Union as a slave state, thereby spreading slavery northward. When violence subsequently erupted in Kansas between proslavery and free factions, Kansas became "bleeding Kansas." This unrest further fueled the antislavery movement in the North.

Lincoln, a leader of the Illinois Whig party, had returned to his successful law practice after a brief congressional stint in the late 1840s. Bleeding Kansas led him to turn his attention back to politics. In February 1856 he joined the call for an Illinois antislavery convention. The convention was held in Bloomington in May, and Lincoln helped lead wavering Whigs into the new Illinois Republican Party.

At the meeting's end, Lincoln was called upon to speak. His law partner, William Herndon, was at the convention and wrote:

I have heard or read all of Mr Lincoln's great speeches, and I give it as my opinion that the Bloomington speech was the grand effort of his life. Heretofore, he had simply argued the slavery question on the ground of policy--the statesman's grounds--never reaching the question of the radical and the eternal right. Now he was baptized and freshly born; he had the fervor of a new convert; the smothered flame broke out; enthusiasm unusual to him blazed up; his eyes were aglow with an inspiration.

His speech was full of fire and energy and force; it was logic; it was pathos; it was enthusiasm; it was justice, equity, truth, and right set ablaze by the divine fires of a soul maddened by the wrong; it was hard, heavy, knotty, gnarly, backed with wrath. I attempted for about fifteen minutes as was usual with me then to take notes, but at the end of that time I threw pen and paper away and lived in the inspiration of the hour....

Unfortunately Lincoln's speech was never written out nor printed, and we are obliged to depend for its reproduction upon personal recollection.

The speech at Bloomington is commonly known by Lincoln scholars as the "Lost Speech" and is credited with establishing Lincoln as the de facto leader of the Illinois Republican Party.

As events in Kansas and elsewhere unfolded, a call went out for Republicans to gather in Philadelphia in June 1856 to select a presidential candidate for that fall's elections. Michigan sent eighteen delegates, including Governor Kinsley S. Bingham (Green Oak), future U.S. Senator Zachariah Chandler (Detroi0 and Hezekiah Wells (Kalamazoo). A former Whig, Wells had once served as the village president of Kalamazoo and became a prominent judge. The convention adopted an antislavery platform and chose the famous western explorer John C. Fremont as the party's first presidential candidate.

Lincoln did not attend the convention, but the Illinois delegation nominated him for the vice-presidential slot on the ticket. He received 110 votes, including five from Michigan, which put him second in the balloting to eventual nominee William Dayton of New Jersey With President Franklin Pierce not seeking reelection, the Democrats chose James Buchanan of Pennsylvania as their candidate. Former president Millard Fillmore became the candidate of the American Party, an anti-Catholic, anti-immigration party, known derisively as the Know-Nothing Party.

With the conventions over, the delegates turned their attention to the task of getting their candidates elected. Judge Wells took this assignment seriously and organized a large Fremont campaign rally to be held in Kalamazoo's Bronson Park that August. Speakers included his fellow delegates, Governor Bingham and Zachariah Chandler, and Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln conditionally accepted the offer to come to Michigan. …