The Day Lincoln Spoke in Dayton

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News February 8, 1931


By Howard Burba


     It was in Dayton that the name of Abraham Lincoln was first publicly mentioned for the presidency of the United States.

     No one paid any particular attention to the suggestion.  In fact, not a very great number were at that time paying any attention to Lincoln.  But today, on the eve of his birthday anniversary, and 72 years removed from the day on which that announcement was made, it is good to review the incident that occasioned it.

     It so happened that in the year 1859 Ohio was in the midst of an unusually exciting gubernatorial election.  Hon. William Dennison was the Republican candidate, his opponent on the Democratic ticket being Judge Rufus P. Ranney.  Dennison was a native of Cincinnati; Judge Ranney had for long years made his home in Portage co.

     While it was a contest to determine who should be governor of Ohio, it was recognized as the opening gun in what was to eventually become a nation-wide struggle over the slavery question.  For that reason it attracted nation-wide attention.  Men and their attainments were not considered in the overwhelming issue of whether the union could exist “half slave and half free.”

     This is sufficient to explain the introduction of Abraham Lincoln into the fight.  Lincoln had served his Illinois district in Congress.  There he had met Tom Corwin and other prominent political leaders from this particular section of the state.  He had, too, just concluded a series of debates with Stephan A. Douglas, and while he was not even then a national character, those debates had served to make his name familiar with a great many Ohioans.

     As the campaign progressed and grew in interest, party leaders on both sides felt it advisable to bring in “outside talent” to bolster up their own oratorical offerings.  The spellbinder was very much in demand in those early days.  Conferring with the men in direct charge of the Dennison candidacy, Tom Corwin suggested that an invitation be extended the Illinois attorney who had made such an excellent showing against Douglas in debating the slavery question.  The suggestion was considered a happy one.

     We find by a glance at Ohio newspapers of 1859 that the campaign had reached the passionate and unreasonable stage.  The excited people were inflamed by a press that seemed to have no other purpose than to abuse the opposite party, ridicule their political opponents and misrepresent the occurrences of the canvass.  For this reason the contemporary journals furnish little real information to one seeking the facts of this period.

     It is known, however, that while the Republicans were casting about for outside orators, the Democrats had permitted no grass to grow under their feet.  They had played a trump card in securing the services of Stephan A. Douglas, and his address at Columbus on Sept. 7, 1859, had, it was contended, caused a considerable disaffection in Republican ranks.  But one means offered for offsetting the effect of Douglas’ appearance in the campaign.  That was to bring Lincoln into Ohio—and to bring him in quickly.  That he was not averse to coming we learn through a letter he already had written to Peter Zinn, of Cincinnati, head of the Republican State Central Committee.  It read:


     “Springfield, Ills.,  Sept. 6, 1859.

     “Peter Zinn, Esq.

     “Dear Sir: yours of the 2nd in relation to my appearing at Cincinnati in behalf of the Opposition is received.  I already had a similar letter from Mr. W. T. Bascom, Secretary of the Republican State Central Committee at Columbus, which I answer today.  You are in correspondence with him and will learn all from him.  I shall try to speak at Columbus and Cincinnati but cannot do more.

     “Yours truly,

     “A. Lincoln.”


     On Friday, Sept. 16, he spoke in Columbus, at 2 o’clock, on the east terrace of the state house and in the evening at the city hall.  The following day he elected to stop off in Dayton en route to Cincinnati.

     We next find the lanky, obscure son of the “Sucker State” in the hands of a local reception committee, being entertained at the historic old Phillips House preliminary to his speech at the court house.  If we are to believe the local Republican organ of that date, it was a tremendous outpouring that greeted him, and escorted him from the train to the hotel.  On the other hand, if we accept the statements of the local Democratic organ, the whole affair was a political “flop.”  However, quoting from the latter, and it may, after all, serve the good purpose of proving that Lincoln’s name carried no magic in that day, we find these words:

     “Instead of  tens of thousands of people being assembled in our city, and the streets being deluged with people, as one of our morning contemporaries prophesied would be the case, upon the occasion of Mr. Lincoln’s speech, a meager crowd, numbering scarcely 200 was all that could be drummed up, and they were half Democrat, who attended from mere curiosity.

     “Mr. Lincoln is a very seductive reasoner, and his address, although a network of fallacies and false assumptions throughout, was calculated to deceive almost any man who would not pay very close attention to the subject, and keep continually on the guard.”

     But we are going to believe that is a bit too partisan.  We prefer to believe that when Abraham Lincoln walked across Third st. at Main and chatted with the political leaders of the Third congressional district, he was passing through a multitude that banked both streets and overflowed far out each thoroughfare in all directions.  It is a prettier picture—now that we know who Abraham Lincoln was.

     It fell to the lot of Hon. Robert Schenck, then congressman from the Third district, to introduce the visitor.  And it was in doing this that he mentioned Lincoln for the first time in any public assemblage, as the prospective candidate of the Republican party for the presidency of the United States.  In the language of the present day, “it went over their heads.”  Yet at the very next national Republican convention, assembled in the city of Chicago, local citizens recalled it quite readily—for Lincoln was nominated.  And it was the switching of Ohio’s delegation that made possible that nomination.

     “There will always be two leading political parties,” said Robert Schenck in prefacing his speech at the Lincoln meeting on Sept. 17, 1859.  “One will claim to be and, however unworthy, will be known as the Conservatives.  No matter what you call either, whether you name the first Liberals, Progressives, Democrats or Radical, and the other Federalists, Conservative, Whigs or Republican, the controlling idea of each will remain the same.  The first will start out as the representative of the free and progressive element that seeks the overthrow of existing evils and the adoption of all improvements in the administration of human good.  The other will be based upon the desire of wise men to conserve what is good in existing institutions and to put new plans to severe tests before adoption.  The men of each of these great dividing parties are human, and therefore, liable to be led astray from this original faith.

     “I claim to be a Conservative.  I prefer a party which, all things considered, walks in the old paths and is guided by the old lights, until the greater clearness of the new pales and makes unnecessary the old.  In the new formation and reformation of parties I, as a conservative, have made up my mind to vote with the Republican party.”

     Having been fittingly introduced, Mr. Lincoln referred to his two former appearances in Ohio, but stated that it was the first time he had been privileged to speak in Dayton.  The two occasions he spoke of were in connection with legal cases in Cincinnati, when he, on each occasion, represented clients residing in his own state of Illinois.  He mentioned the slurring manner in which he had been referred to by the editor of a Columbus newspaper, which attacked his views of slavery, and said:

     “I have ever said in regard to the institution of slavery and the black race, slavery is wrong.  This is the whole of it, and anything that argues me into the idea of perfect, social and political equality with the Negro is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse.

     “I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with slavery in the states where it exists.  I hold that notwithstanding it, there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the neutral rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    “I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.  I argue with Judge Douglas that he is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowments, but in the right to eat the bread which his own hands earn,  he is my equal, the equal of Judge Douglas—and the equal of any living man.”

     Tremendous applause greeted that assertion.  And it had scarcely subsided when Mr. Lincoln offered Ohio as an example of what every state should be, and would be, if slavery were set aside as an institution.

     “Judge Douglas stated in a speech at Memphis,” he continued, “that there was a ‘line drawn by the Almighty across the continent, on the one side of which the soil must always be cultivated by slaves’; that he did not pretend to know exactly where that line was, but that there was such a line.

     “I want to ask your attention to that proposition, that there is one portion of this continent where the Almighty has designed the soil shall always be cultivated by slaves; that its being cultivated by slaves at that place is right; that it has the direct sympathy and authority of the Almighty.  Whenever you can get these northern audiences to adopt the opinion that slavery is right on the other side of the Ohio river; whenever you can get them, in pursuance of Douglas’ views, to adopt that sentiment, they will very readily adopt the other argument, which is perfectly logical, that that which is right on the other side of the Ohio cannot be wrong on this, and that if you have that property on that side of the Ohio, under the seal and stamp of the Almighty, when by any means it escapes over here it is wrong to have constitutions and laws to devil you about it.

     “You do not raise sugar-cane (except the new-fashioned sugar-cane, and you won’t raise that long) but they do raise it in Louisiana.  You don’t raise it in Ohio because you can’t raise it profitably.  Now, Douglas will tell you that it is precisely so with the slavery question.  That they do have slaves there because they are profitable, and you don’t have them here because they are not profitable. If that is so, then it leads to dealing with the one precisely as with the other.  Is there anything in the constitution of laws of Ohio about raising sugar-cane?  Have you found it necessary to put any such provision in your law?  Surely not.  No man desires to raise sugar-cane in Ohio; but if any man did desire to do so, you would say it was a tyrannical law that forbids him doing so, and whenever you shall agree with Douglas, whenever your minds are brought to adopt this argument, as surely you will have reached the conclusion that although slavery is not profitable in Ohio, if any man wants it, it is wrong to him not to let him have it.

     “I believe that it is safe to assert that five years ago, no living man had expressed the opinion that the negro had no share in the Declaration of Independence. Let me state that again; five years ago no living man had expressed the opinion that the Negro had no share in the Declaration of Independence.  If there is in this large audience any man who ever know of that opinion being put upon paper as much as five years ago, I will be obliged to him now or at a subsequent time to show it.

     “If that be true I wish you then to note the next fact; that within the space of five years Senator Douglas, in the argument of this question, has got his entire party, so far as I know, without exception, to join in saying that the Negro has no share in the Declaration of Independence.  If there be now in all these United States one Douglas man that does not say this, I have been unable upon any occasion to scare him up.

     “Of what tendency is that change?  The tendency of that change is to bring the public mind to the conclusion that when men are spoken of, the Negro is not meant; that when Negroes are spoken of, brutes alone are contemplated.  That change in sentiment has already degraded the black man in the estimation of Douglas and his followers from the condition of a man of some sort, and assigned him to the condition of a brute.

     “At this same meeting in Memphis Douglas declared that in all contests between the Negro and the white man he was for the white man, but that in all questions between the Negro and the crocodile, he was for the Negro.  He did not make that declaration accidentally at Memphis.  He made it a great many times in the canvass in Illinois last year.  I believe he repeated it at Columbus.  It is, then, a deliberate way of expressing himself upon that subject.  It is a matter of mature deliberation with him thus to express himself upon that point of his case.  It therefore requires some deliberate attention.

     “The first inference seems to be that if you do not enslave the Negro you are wronging the white man in some way or other; and that whoever is opposed to the Negro being enslaved is, in some way or other, against the white man.  Is not that a falsehood?  If there was a necessary conflict between the white man and the negro, I should be for the white man as much as Judge Douglas; but I say there is no such necessary conflict.  I say that there is room enough for all of us to be free, and that it not only does not wrong the white man that the Negro should be free, but it positively wrongs the mass of the white man that the Negro should be enslaved; that the mass of white men are really injured by the effects of slave labor in the vicinity of the fields of their own labor.

     “The other branch of it is, that in a struggle between the Negro and the crocodile, he is for the Negro.  Well, I don’t know that there is any struggle between the Negro and the crocodile, either.  I suppose that if a crocodile (or, as we old Ohio river boatmen used to call them, alligators) should some across a white man he would kill him if he could, and so he would a Negro.  But what, at last, is this proposition?  I believe it is a sort of proposition in proportion which should be stated thus: As the Negro is to the white man, so is the crocodile to the Negro; and as the Negro may rightfully treat the crocodile as a beast or reptile, so the white man may rightfully treat the Negro as a beast or reptile.  That is really the knip of the argument.”

     Mr. Lincoln referred in his speech to the oft-repeated statement by Douglas that the Ordinance of 1787 had never made a free state and that Ohio had been made free solely by the action of its own people.  He spoke to the difficulties of getting rid of slavery wherever it gained a foothold, and the trouble which encompassed the formation of a free constitution in a territory where there were slaves held as property and he attributed the untrammeled action of the convention which framed the constitution of Ohio in 1862 to the fact that the Ordinance of 1787 had prohibited the ingress of slaves, and so had relieved the question of a free constitution of all embarrassment.

     In connection with the action of the people of Ohio, Mr. Lincoln referred to what had been said quite often as to the influence of climate and soil in inviting slave labor to agricultural pursuits.  He contended that the climate and soil of Ohio were just as favorable to the employment of black labor as were the soil and climate of Kentucky, and yet, without the Ordinance of 1787 Kentucky was made a slave state, and with the Ordinance Ohio was made a free state.

     And then came statements that proved prophetic in the light of events to come—now historical facts.  He brought his address to a close with these words:

     “It is very desirable with me, as with everyone else, that all the elements of the opposition shall unite in the next presidential election and in all future time.  I am anxious that that should be, but there are things seriously to be considered in relation to that matter.  If the terms can be arranged, I am in favor of the Union.  But suppose we take up some man and shall put him upon one end or the other of the ticket who declares himself against us in regard to the prevention of the spread of slavery—who turns up his nose and says he is tired of hearing any more about it, who is more against us than against the enemy, what will be the issue?  Why, we will get no slaves states after all—he has tried that until being beat is the rule with him.

     “If we nominate him upon that ground he will not carry a slave state, and not only so, but that portion of our men who are highstrung upon the principle we really fight for, will not go for him, and he won’t get a single electoral vote anywhere except, perhaps, in the state of Maryland.

     “The good old maxims of the Bible are applicable, and truly applicable, to human affairs, and in this, as in other things, we may say here that he who is not for us is against us; he who gathereth  not with us scattereth.  I should be glad to have some of the many good, and able, and noble men of the south to place themselves where we can confer upon them the high honor of an election upon one or the other end of the ticket.  It would do my soul good to do that thing.  It would enable us to teach them that, inasmuch as we elect one of their own number to carry our principles, we are free from the charge that we mean more than we say.”