Lincoln’s speech in El Paso in 1858 lost to history

By Tom Emery

The Metamora Courthouse State Historic Site and an array of markers interpret the legacy of Lincoln in Woodford County. (Enjoy Illinois photo)

Abraham Lincoln appeared in countless cities and towns across Illinois in his pre-Presidential years, including El Paso.

Unfortunately, a speech he delivered in town in 1858 has been lost to history.

Lincoln was in El Paso that Aug. 28 while changing trains and gave an impromptu address to an enthusiastic crowd of followers. However, no record of that speech exists today.

It was one of many experiences for Lincoln in Woodford County, which was formerly part of the Eighth Judicial Circuit. Lincoln appeared in the county to argue cases on the legal circuit numerous times between 1841-57, first at Versailles, where the county seat was located before shifting to Hanover (now Metamora) in 1843. The seat eventually settled in Eureka in 1894.

In 1858, Lincoln faced two-term incumbent Stephen A. Douglas for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and both crisscrossed the state throughout the summer and fall.

Douglas delivered some 130 addresses during the campaign and traveled 5,227 miles in the hundred days before the November election. Lincoln, meanwhile, spoke 63 times and wound his way across 4,350 miles from July to November.

Late August was a seminal period in the campaign, as the second debate between Lincoln and Douglas was held at Freeport on the unseasonably cool afternoon of Friday, Aug. 27. Considered the most significant of the seven debates, the Freeport exchange is best known for Lincoln’s direct question to Douglas on whether popular sovereignty by territories to exclude slavery before statehood was even possible.

On Saturday, the day after the debate, Lincoln was returning home on the southbound Illinois Central Railroad when he arrived in El Paso at 3:40 p.m. He intended to switch to a westbound Peoria & Oquawka (later Toledo, Peoria, & Western) for the trip to Peoria, but had a brief layover.

Word quickly spread of his presence in town, and supporters surrounded him. One of those backers wrote in the Chicago Tribune on Sept. 3 that “we soon gathered a crowd around him,” inducing Lincoln to deliver an impromptu address.

With an evident bias, the Tribune letter reported that Lincoln “answered and set at rest the foul aspersions that Douglas and his followers are with such efficiency passing current through the land.”

A 1954 history of El Paso adds that Lincoln dined at the restaurant of Ludwik Chlopicki, a local Polish immigrant and entrepreneur. That account writes that Lincoln was in town “for an hour and fifty minutes” on “that warm afternoon” and boarded his next train at 5:30 p.m. The Tribune account lists the time in El Paso as an hour.

Whatever the case, Lincoln’s brief time in town was apparently well-received. The Tribune letter concluded that “when he left us it was with his friends and co-workers stronger if possible in their party faith.”

The Tribune letter is the only known account of the El Paso appearance, which is not unusual in Lincoln studies. A surprising number of his speaking appearances, particularly on a local level, were not transcribed and correspondents, either from laziness or lack of interest, frequently chose not to take detailed notes. As a result, the text of numerous Lincoln orations, including the 1858 El Paso appearance, are obscure to history

The election was decided in the state legislature, since direct voting of U.S. Senators was not permitted until the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. Douglas prevailed in the assembly 54-46, and a dejected Lincoln wrote “I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten.” Time, of course, proved those words inaccurate.

The 1954 account also writes that Lincoln was back in El Paso in July 1859 as part of an entourage of Illinois Central officials. It was a business trip for Lincoln, who was on retainer to the IC for much of the late 1850s.

That history states that Lincoln was “in town with his family on a special Illinois Central train … inspecting the yards and the railroad’s property here.”

Though El Paso is not mentioned, the trip is referenced in Lincoln Day-by-Day, a three-volume listing of Lincoln’s daily activities published in 1960 that remains a standard in Lincoln research.

That work reports the trip began from Springfield on July 14, with Lincoln and such luminaries as Illinois secretary of state Ozias Hatch, state auditor Jesse Dubois, Stephen T. Logan, who was Lincoln’s second-law partner, and William Butler, a future state treasurer.

Day-by-Day quotes the Chicago Tribune on July 20 that “Lincoln, Logan, Dubois, their families, and others of the Illinois Central party were at the Tremont House,” a premier hotel of Chicago. Lincoln returned to Springfield on July 22.

But Lincoln’s ties to Woodford County were of little help in either of his Presidential campaigns. He lost the county by 181 of 2,657 votes cast in the 1860 election and fell by an even larger margin four years later, collecting only 42.9 percent of 2,955 total votes.

That, too, is not unusual. Lincoln failed to carry many counties in downstate Illinois, including some of those surrounding Woodford. He lost Peoria County by 199 and 203 votes, respectively, in his two Presidential bids, and fell in Tazewell County by 160 votes in 1864 after a win of 180 tallies four years earlier.

McLean County was one of the rare downstate Lincoln strongholds, as he won that county with 58.5 percent of the vote in 1860 and 60.8 percent four years later. His winning margins in Livingston County were 57.5 and 61.3 percent, respectively. Marshall County also went for Lincoln both times, though with less than 55 percent in either election.

Lincoln even lost his home county of Sangamon in both elections, and only carried Springfield by 10 votes — 1,324-1,314 — in 1864.

Today, the Metamora Courthouse State Historic Site and an array of markers interpret the legacy of Lincoln in Woodford County and its formidable ties to the 16th President.


Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or