Lincoln’s Strong Ties to the Peoria Area

by Brad Mcmillan
Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley University

Since Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, we will proudly celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s 203rd birthday on February 12th. And while Springfield can rightfully claim Lincoln as its hometown president, the Peoria area also played a prominent role in his legal and political career.

Lincoln practiced law for nearly 25 years in the Illinois courts and rode the eighth judicial circuit, which included Tazewell and Woodford counties. He also took the ferry across the Illinois River to the Peoria County Courthouse. Indeed, Lincoln participated in at least 275 cases in Tazewell County, including his first substantial judgment of more than $16,000 and the freeing of a young slave.

Reportedly, it was on the Tazewell County Courthouse steps where Lincoln was challenged to a duel by the hot-tempered James Shield, the only man ever elected to the U.S. Senate by three different states. Lincoln also visited the historic Metamora Courthouse often, which is one of just two original courthouses remaining from the time Lincoln rode the eighth circuit. At the Peoria County Courthouse, Abraham Lincoln defended Clarissa Wren in a sensational divorce proceeding against her husband, the former county commissioner.

At the mere age of 25, Lincoln was elected to the Illinois state legislature, serving four successive terms from 1834 to 1842. As a state representative, Lincoln spoke in 1840 at Whig rallies in Tremont and Peoria for presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. The Peoria Register editor described it as follows: “Mr. Lincoln here rose and made just such a great speech as would be expected from a gentleman of his high reputation for argument and eloquence.”

Lincoln was also a speaker at the Whig State Convention in Peoria in 1844, and while at first he had a “stooping posture” and seemed to struggle for words, Jeriah Bonham recalled that “as he proceeded, he seemed to gain more confidence, his body straightened up, his countenance brightened and his language became free and animated. Then he became eloquent and carried the swaying crowd at his will—who at every point he made in his forcible argument were tumultuous in their applause.”

An often overlooked historical fact is that Abraham Lincoln served one term in Congress (1847-1849) representing Illinois’ 7th District, which included eleven central Illinois counties, including Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford (see map above). As described by the Washington Star: “In December 1847, Abraham Lincoln took his seat in Congress…It was not long before he became a great favorite with the members…for his genial manners, pleasant voice and ready wit gave him a magnetic influence…He possessed but few personal attractions, his figure tall and ungainly, but these deficiencies were amply compensated for his many shining qualities of mind and heart.”

Finally, and most notably, Lewis Lehrman, in his book Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point, recounts in vivid detail Lincoln’s famous “Peoria Speech,” which he gave on Peoria’s courthouse steps on October 16, 1854. Between 1849 and 1854, Lincoln had substantially withdrawn from politics to concentrate on his law practice. The Peoria speech resurrected his political career with a brilliant, three-hour, impassioned oration in which Lincoln laid out for the first time his objections to the extension of slavery. This historic speech served as the position paper against slavery for the newly formed Republican Party.

Imagine yourself as a Peorian—a group which numbered about 2,000 in 1854—listening to Lincoln passionately espousing the principles that served as the foundation of his presidency, that ended the scourge of slavery and led to his becoming America’s most revered president. Imagine yourself gazing up at Abraham Lincoln and hearing him proclaim for the first time:

Our republican robe is soiled…Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution…Let north and south—let all Americans—let all lovers of liberty everywhere join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union…We shall have saved it, that succeeding millions of free and happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations…Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature—opposition to it, in his love of justice.

Thus, Lincoln’s rich life experiences in the Peoria area helped shape the man and the great president he became. We should appreciate and celebrate this inspiring part of our shared local history. iBi

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