On September 16, 1848, a tall, angular Congressman with dense, slightly unkempt dark hair strode behind the podium of Richmond Hall, in Dorchester.
He had come to campaign for the Whig Party’s presidential candidate, General Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican-American War. As the Congressman began to speak in his folksy Illinois manner, the residents crowding the hall took the measure of that speaker, thirty-nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846, had been selected at the Whigs’ national convention, in June 1848, to stump for Taylor in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Illinois. On September 12, he had shown up at Worcester with little or no advance notice to address the state’s Whigs on the burning issue of slavery. To prepare for his campaign swing through Massachusetts, he asked William Schouler, the editor of the Boston Atlas, to provide him an “undisguised opinion as to what New England generally, and Massachusetts particularly will do [in the upcoming presidential election.”
On September 16, 1848, Dorchester’s Whigs streamed into Richmond Hall, few locals having heard much about the visitor from Illinois. Lincoln, fully aware of the strong Abolitionist stand of many of the town’s Whigs, opened his speech with an assurance “that the people of Illinois agreed entirely with the people of Massachusetts on this subject.” Injecting what he hoped was a bit of humor, he cracked that the difference was that his home state “did not keep so constantly thinking about it” as did people in Dorchester and the rest of Massachusetts.
The jest fell flat, and he shrugged and launched into the heart of his speech, offering that “slavery was an evil, but that we were not responsible for it and cannot affect it in the States of this Union where we do not live.”
He strongly cited his opposition - and Taylor’s - opposition to any extension of slavery to new U.S. territories including those that the nation had seized from Mexico.
Lincoln had actually caused a stir in early 1848 by haranguing President James K. Polk for his conduct of the conflict with Mexico and presented Congress with several resolutions to demanding that Polk explain his wartime decisions.
On January 22, 1848, the freshman Congressman stood in the speaker’s well of the House and denounced the prosecution of the war.
His opposition mirrored that of the majority of Massachusetts’ voters and made him a logical, if largely unfamiliar, choice to line up the state’s Whigs to get behind Taylor - ironically, perhaps, the hero of the pivotal Battle of Buena Vista, in 1847.
At Richmond Hall, Lincoln’s physical appearance and mannerisms caught the audience’s attention as much as his oratory. Towering above the podium, he kept “leaning himself up against the wall….and talking in the plainest manner, and in the most indifferent tone, yet gradually fixing his footing, and getting command of his limbs, loosening his tongue, and firing up his thoughts, until he had got entire possession of himself and of his audience.”
Local listeners were divided over Lincoln’s style. He intrigued some in Richmond Hall with his running patter of “argument and anecdote, wit and wisdom, hymns and prophecies, platforms and syllogisms”; however, his homespun Midwestern approach fell flat with other Dorchester Whigs dismayed by “his awkward gesticulations, the ludicrous management of his voice, and the comical expression of his countenance.”
One Massachusetts Whig who liked Lincoln’s delivery complained nonetheless, “It was a pretty sound, but not a tasteful speech.”
In local newspapers, reactions to the Illinois Congressman’s words ran along partylines. The Boston Daily Advertiser, a Whig paper favored by such Dorchester citizens as William C. Codman, lauded, “It was one of the best speeches ever heard [in Massachusetts].”
In the Boston Herald, Lincoln earned plaudits as “a tremendous voice for Taylor…” Democratic-leaning newspapers either ignored Lincoln’s speech or assailed it.
“Absolutely nauseous,” stated the Norfolk Democrat. Equally harsh was the Roxbury Gazette’s assessment: “A melancholy display.”
In the opinion of another local editorial writer, Lincoln’s oratory was “rather witty, though truth and reason and argument were treated as out of the question, as unnecessary and not to be expected.”
When Dorchester’s Whigs departed Richmond Hall on September 16, 1848, few ‑ even those who had enjoyed the speech, would have envisioned Lincoln as presidential timbre. Lincoln, however, would look back fondly to his days on the campaign trail of 1848. For the Illinois politician, Taylor’s election to the White House vindicated Lincoln’s earnest work on the campaign trail for “Old Rough and Ready,” as Taylor had been fondly dubbed by his troops in Mexico.
Lincoln recalled, “I went with hayseed in my hair [to Massachusetts] to learn deportment in the most cultivated State in the Union.”
Some thirteen years later, the Illinois Congressman, whose speech at Richmond Hall evoked sharply delineated opinions among the town’s voters, was elected to the same high office that he had helped Taylor win. Slavery, the issue that echoed throughout Lincoln’s speech in 1848, had helped ignite the Civil War that Lincoln now confronted, and when the voice that had left many in Dorchester unimpressed appealed for volunteers to fight the Confederates, scores of the town’s men heard and answered the call in the ranks of the Union Army.
Peter F. Stevens is the author of many books of history including Hidden History of the Boston Irish: Little-Known Stories from Ireland’s “Next Parish Over and Forgotten Tales of Massachusetts. This article first appeared in the September 20, 2001 edition of the Dorchester Reporter.