On the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1859, 160 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln spoke in Hamilton.
The 20-minute speech by the future Republican president, who had yet to be an official candidate and would be elected president 14 months later, happened at a Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad depot near what now is South Fourth and Ludlow streets, about two blocks south of the Hamilton and Butler County government towers.
It was witnessed by about 1,000 people, an impressive number for a town of about 7,223 at the time. But reviews of the future president’s brief address were not all positive. One reporter even called the clean-shaven Lincoln “ugly.”
Here is a description of the speech in the book “Hamilton-Butler County Bicentennial Briefs,” by George C. Crout:
“A reporter at the meeting wrote: ‘People were generally disappointed in the man, and in his appearance…. He cannot be a great man, everyone feels it. He displays no oratory, but judging from the peculiar twinkling of his eye —he is no slouch at wit. Ugliness predominates; rough and rugged in manners and looks, he still is conceded to possess fine talent as a debater.’”
According to the Centennial History of Butler County, the lanky Lincoln was standing next to the very short Congressman John A. Gurley of Cincinnati, told the audience, “My friends, this is the long of it,” pointing to himself. Laying his hand on Gurley’s head, he added: “And this is the short of it.”
He offered a compliment to the region, saying, “This beautiful and far-famed Miami Valley is the garden spot of the world. My friends, your sons may desire to locate in the West; you don’t want them to settle in a territory like Kansas, with the curse of slavery hanging over it. They desire the blessings of freedom, so dearly purchased by our Revolutionary forefathers.”
Kansas was the center of debate over slavery at the time, and whether it should be allowed in new states being formed out of territories.
The book quotes an account by an unnamed Hamilton newspaper that was politically opposed to Lincoln. It was not the Journal-News, whose predecessors date back only to 1879.
“After waiting a few minutes, some one shouted ‘Lincoln,’ and out came a tall, ungainly, lank, lean sucker. Mounting a temporary platform, he made a few commonplace remarks, the substance being that our valley is filling up, that our people must soon emigrate, and the probability that we desire a territory not cursed by the ‘peculiar institution’ (of slavery). Then, politely thanking the crowd, was off.”
The reporter — the same one mentioned in the Crout book — also opined: “The outlines of his head can lay no claims to intellectuality.”
According to a 2009 column by the late Hamilton historian Jim Blount, Lincoln’s several speeches in Ohio during that period, including in Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, were considered a continuation of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in several Illinois towns in late 1858.
Hamilton’s Lincoln speech is commemorated by an Ohio historical marker in the plaza in front of the city administration building at High Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
After Lincoln was assassinated, Hamilton went into mourning, with church services and hours of tolling church bells.
Richard Carpenter, a 1970s Navy veteran who lives in the 300 block of South Fourth Street, was impressed to learn Lincoln had spoken just a few houses away from his home.
“That’s pretty good,” Carpenter said. “He’s on the penny and on the $5.”
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