When Lincoln came to town

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A week after delivering a speech at the Wisconsin Agricultural Society fair in Milwaukee in September 1859, a beardless Abraham Lincoln posed for this portrait by Chicago photographer S.M. Fassett. Lincoln was elected president the following year (Library of Congress photo LC-USZ62-7727).

Before Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States, and before the bloody and prolonged war that kept it the United States, the citizens of Milwaukee had an opportunity to hear Abraham Lincoln speak and see for themselves the up-and-coming Illinois politician.

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Lincoln was already a well-known figure. His speech the previous year, which concluded, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free” and his fiery series of debates with Stephen Douglas had brought Lincoln national prominence, and his anti-slavery stance was widely admired in Wisconsin. It was only natural the directors of the 1859 Wisconsin State Fair invited him to speak.

The fairgrounds were then located between Wisconsin and Highland and from 10th to 13th streets. The spot where Lincoln delivered his speech, 13th and Wells, was then on the edge of town. Today the site is part of Marquette University and a small historical marker commemorates the occasion.

Lincoln, dressed in a black frock coat and his customary “stove-pipe” hat, delivered the speech in his surprisingly high-pitched voice from atop a wagon. He was paid $150, a very good fee in 1859. Mindful of his audience as any good politician must be, Lincoln generally confined his remarks to agriculture.

One feature, I believe, of every fair, is a regular address. The Agricultural Society of the young, prosperous, and soon to be, great State of Wisconsin, has done me the high honor of selecting me to make that address upon this occasion – an honor for which I make my profound, and grateful acknowledgement.

I presume I am not expected to employ the time assigned me, in the mere flattery of the farmers, as a class. My opinion of them is that, in proportion to numbers, they are neither better nor worse than any other class; and I believe there really are more attempts at flattering them than any other; the reason of which I cannot perceive, unless it be that they can cast more votes than any other. On reflection, I am not quite sure that there is not cause of suspicion against you, in selecting me, in some sort a politician, and in no sort a farmer, to address you.

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The speech went on at great length and touched upon a variety of agricultural topics. It is succinctly described by the website abrahamlincolnonline.org as “suffers from tedium.” Still, historians note the speech is significant in understanding Lincoln’s thoughts on agriculture and, especially, the importance of free labor (meaning not slave labor).

Having given the crowd a good, solid $150-worth, Lincoln wrapped up his remarks by noting that the prizes (“premiums”) were about to be awarded:

But, according to your programme, the awarding of premiums awaits the closing of this address. Considering the deep interest necessarily pertaining to that performance, it would be no wonder if I am already heard with some impatience. I will detain you but a moment longer. Some of you will be successful, and such will need but little philosophy to take them home in cheerful spirits; others will be disappointed, and will be in a less happy mood. To such, let it be said, “Lay it not too much to heart.” Let them adopt the maxim, “Better luck next time;” and then, by renewed exertion, make that better luck for themselves.

And by the successful, and the unsuccessful, let it be remembered, that while occasions like the present, bring their sober and durable benefits, the exultations and mortifictions of them, are but temporary; that the victor shall soon be the vanquished, if he relax in his exertion; and that the vanquished this year, may be victor the next, in spite of all competition.

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.

His talk over, Lincoln stepped down from the wagon, shook hands with local dignitaries, and returned to his hotel. Six years later, on April 15th, 1865, having fought a war to preserve the union and end to slavery, Lincoln died. He was 56 years old.

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