Abraham Lincoln’s Only Michigan Speech

Branson Park, downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan


The Republican Party was founded in Jackson, Michigan in 1854 by northerners—many from Michigan—who were not pleased with the approach other political parties were taking with regard to slavery and the preservation of the Union.  John C.  Fremont was the Republican presidential nominee for the 1856 election.  He was famous for being one of the nation’s foremost Nineteenth Century explorers. He traveled and explored much West shortly after Rogers and Clark returned to St. Louis in September, 1806 from their successful trip up the Missouri and down the Columbia to the Pacific Coast.   Fremont settled in California and, in 1850, became one of the first two United States senators from that state.  Abraham Lincoln, than an obscure Illinois lawyer who had served one term in Congress some years earlier, came to Kalamazoo on August 27, 1856 to give a speech in support of candidate John Fremont.

We think of President Lincoln as the Great Emancipator and honor him for his ending bondage in this county.  He deserves all those accolades.  However, Abraham Lincoln did not always endorse Emancipation.  Most individuals in the North strongly advocated an end to slavery but there was no consensus about how to accomplish that aim or whether slave owners should be compensated.  There appeared to be consensus that blacks should be removed from the United States but there were no practical plans for resettling former slaves.  Many Northerners hoped that there might be some sort of political compromise that would first confine and then eventually end slavery.  Some advocated freeing offspring born to slave women when those children reached their adult ages.  Some called for those children to be sent to Africa once they were freed.   But efforts to work out a compromise failed since southern representatives in Congress had the power to block them.   The Supreme Court’s 1850 Dred Scott decision clearly ruled that there could be no “free” states in the Union and that Constitution provided no rights at all to persons of African descent—free or enslaved. 

Most northern residents presumed that it would be impossible for the white and black races to live together peacefully.  They shared almost unchallenged views about the superiority of whites and the deficiencies of blacks.  All northern states, except Maine and Massachusetts, denied blacks voting rights.  Massachusetts may have been the only state that allowed blacks to serve on juries.  The northern state militias kept blacks out.  As northern states established public school systems, they specified that only white children could attend provoking litigation about school integration in Massachusetts and Michigan in the 1840s. Michigan was one of many northern states and territories whose constitutions sought to discourage the in-migration of blacks.  In the Wolverine State, a black who wished to migrate here had to present papers providing he or she was not a slave and post a cash bond.  This law, however, was not enforced.   Some in the North proposed that blacks gradually be freed and then sent back to Africa.  The nation of Liberia had been founded and supported by northerners to recolonize blacks to their native continent.  Abraham Lincoln, before becoming President, entertained the idea of having the government buy land in the Caribbean or Central America where freed slaves might be exiled.   Northerners also recognized that while slavery was wrong, the federal government might have no power to immediately appropriate the great wealth that slave owners legally held in their chattels.  England, in 1833, adopted a gradual policy of Emancipation that included some compensation to slave owners.  The compensation policy proved difficult or impossible to put into operation so England freed all slaves in 1837 with no further compensation to slave owners for their loss of property.

If northerners assumed that blacks and whites could not live in the same area, southerners knew that their economy and their society could not survive without slaves or blacks to work on their farms and plantations.  There were a several experiments in the South using free labor and a few German farmers prospered in Texas without owning slaves.  But those were rare exceptions and the idea of sending slaves back to Africa had no appeal south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The ideas of President Lincoln about Emancipation evolved over the years as did those of many other northern leaders.  Certainly, there are many statements by Lincoln suggesting that if he had to accept slavery to preserve the Union, he would do so.  Of course, that proved to be impossible.  John Brown was one of the few northern spokesmen who correctly foresaw that ending slavery in the United States would require a tremendous amount of bloodshed.

The August, 1857 Kalamazoo speech of Lincoln that you can read by clicking on the hypertext below, almost makes him seem like a defender of slavery.  He calls for the preservation of the Union and suggests that several policies to limit slavery are impractical or unconstitutional.  He observed that the value of slaves in the country probably exceeded one billion dollars implying that it would be impossible to compensate owners for their losses were there immediate Emancipation.  And then, Abraham Lincoln went on to stress—at some length—that his candidate, John C. Fremont, was not an abolitionist.  It is fascinating to read this speech and imagine what Lincoln was thinking knowing that, just six years later, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that quickly ended bondage in the rebellious states.  Technically, the freeing of slaves in states that were not part of the Confederacy including Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia awaited the Fourteenth Amendment but that was a formality.  Lincoln’s September, 1863 proclamation ended slavery.

Perhaps partly due to Abraham Lincoln’s oratory, Fremont carried Michigan in 1856 with 57 percent of the state’s votes.  But Democratic candidate James Buchanan won the 1856 presidential election and served a very unsuccessful term.  By 1860, Lincoln was popular in the North and carried Michigan with 57 percent of the vote in that year.  Lincoln did not visit Michigan in his 1860 campaign, presumably because he knew that Michigan was a safe state for the Republican ticket.

State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P 23,654 Listed: July 19, 1956
State of Michigan Historic Marker: Erected January 18, 1957
Website with text of Lincoln’s speech: http://www.abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/Library/newsletter.asp?ID=49&CRLI=129
Photograph:  Ren Farley; April 23, 2011
Description updated: February, 2012

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