The History of Joliet – Chapter 9
By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)
Submitted by Nancy Vargo
The article that was published on Oct. 14, 1856, referred several times to LINCOLN as “that black Republican.” Some local historians believe, however, that the speech he made in Joliet may have included the classic line, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’
By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News
On a warm fall day in 1856, a tall, gaunt man came to Joliet to make a speech at a political rally and beauty pageant in Demmond’s Woods.
But Abraham LINCOLN was just beginning to earn a reputation as a speaker. The downstate lawyer was pretty much still unknown at the time.
LINCOLN wasn’t even the featured speaker that day. The main speech at the rally was made by Owen LOVEJOY, an outspoken abolitionist and Republican candidate for Congress. Another featured speaker was Knud Iverson BROSS, a Chicago Democrat.
In these days, the Republican Party was still in its infancy. The party’s candidate for president was Gen. John C. FREMONT, the soldier who had explored the Northwest and brought California into the Union.
LINCOLN was speaking in favor of FREMONT and Lyman TRUMBELL, the Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat. That within itself made LINCOLN an unpopular man in Joliet.
The Democratic candidate for that Senate seat was Joliet’s own Joel MATTESON, who was just completing a four-year term as governor. LINCOLN, who disliked Matteson, had been campaigning hard for TRUMBELL.
The October day had started with a parade through Joliet. Bands played, and beauty contestants were participating in a pageant, complete with their ribbons and parasols, riding on a hay rack through the streets.
Activities in Demmond’s Woods, a grove of trees about where the old West Pines Hotel is located, included a rail-splitting contest and picnic. People had traveled from all over northeastern Illinois to attend the event.
But no one knows how large that crowd was. The Joliet Signal newspaper sarcastically estimated the crowd at 2.5 million, adding it was nothing for the Republicans to get together a crowd that large in a county of 15,000 to 20,000.
The Signal was a strong supporter of Democratic politics. Its editor, Cal ZARLEY, was a close friend of high-ranking state Democrats like Stephen A. DOUGLAS, who was known as “the little giant.”
As a result of the newspaper’s partisanship, LINCOLN‘s words that day have been lost. The article that was published on Oct. 14, 1856, referred several times to LINCOLN as “that black Republican.”
Some local historians believe, however, that the speech he made in Joliet may have included the classic line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
At the time, slavery was a hot political potato. The burning issue centered around whether or not slavery should be expanded to the new territories and states west of the Mississippi River. The new Republican Party was already opposing slavery.
Although LINCOLN‘s exact words that day in Joliet have been lost, some of what he said apparently made a big impression on the crowd. Almeda STEPHENSON, one of the young beauties in the pageant, recalled as an elderly woman that folks had listened when he spoke.
“We were disgusted with his appearance, although our parents, most who were staunch Republicans, awaited his coming eagerly,” she said.
LINCOLN reportedly spent that Wednesday night in Joliet’s National Hotel on Exchange Street. He would only return to Joliet one more time.
Two years later, in 1858, LINCOLN‘s name would receive national recognition after a series of debates with DOUGLAS, “the little giant,” as they opposed each other for a U.S. Senate seat. The famous series of debates centered around the slavery issue.
On Sept. 9, 1858, they met in one of those debates in Ottawa. Several hundred people from Joliet attended that debate, traveling there by both train and on boats along the canal.
A few days after that debate, DOUGLAS bragged in Joliet that he had terrified LINCOLN so badly in the debate that he had to be carried off the platform and hospitalized for a week.
The debates elevated LINCOLN‘s reputation so that he became the Republican presidential candidate two years later. After he was elected, he led the Union in the Civil War.
On April 15, 1865, shortly after being elected to a second term, LINCOLN was assassinated. A funeral train bringing him home to Springfield for burial took 18 days as it passed through American cities. At close to midnight on May 2, LINCOLN made his second appearance in Joliet when the funeral train stopped here. More than 5,000 people lined the track while standing in the rain.
“Guns were fired, church bells tolled, and the multitude stood in reverential silence with uncovered heads while the band played a solemn dirge,” a local newspaper reported.
Published May 26, 2001