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Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006 03:38 pm

Timely message

Shelbyville to memorialize Lincoln's 1856 debate with local attorney

Like the “Lost Speech” that Abraham Lincoln gave in May 1856 in Bloomington, a speech he gave in Shelbyville in August 1856 was never recorded verbatim. The Illinois State Register of Aug. 19, 1856, noted only that the three-hour speech was “prosy and dull.” Lincoln, the paper reported, “attempted to make small side issues of no importance. He ridiculed the idea of disunion and used a great many sophisms to divert the public mind from the true issue of the day.”

The occasion was a “friendly debate” between Lincoln and local attorney Anthony Thornton, and Lincoln was speaking to very few fellow Republicans. Later, the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 10, noted that Lincoln “entered into a clear, logical and forceful discussion of the issues.”

Other writers have also commented on the importance of the debate, which took place on Aug. 9, 1856, in molding Lincoln into a presidential candidate. Two years after the debate, Lincoln delivered the “House Divided” speech in Springfield, and two months after that he began his series of seven public debates with Stephen A. Douglas.

The Shelbyville debate was all but forgotten until local artist Robert M. Root painted his version of it after interviewing Thornton a year before Thornton died. And now, among the many communities poised to garner some attention with the commemoration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009, Shelbyville — a town of 5,000 southeast of Springfield — wants to make sure the debate is always remembered.

Shelby County Lincoln Heritage has commissioned world-renowned Decatur sculptor John McClarey to fashion a life-size statue commemorating the event and is raising $150,000. McClarey’s most recent piece is “A Greater Task,” the heroically sized Lincoln statue at Union Park, near the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

The Lincoln-Thornton debate took place as a result of friendship and mutual respect. While practicing in the former 14-county old Eighth Judicial Circuit, Lincoln, who had little formal education, and the college-educated Thornton developed a strong friendship and often were associated in law as in politics, according to John J. Duff in Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer. But with the dissolution of the Whig Party in 1854-55, the two men parted politically, Lincoln becoming a Republican and Thornton a Democrat. Thornton was born in the South, and his loyalties remained there.

The Shelby County Republican Party extended an invitation to Lincoln for a friendly debate with Thornton, who said in his 1896 autobiography, “Slavery, and intimately connected with it, the Nebraska Bill, was the principal question for discussion.” The invitation was one of about 50 that Lincoln received as a candidate for presidential elector, according to Homer H. Cooper in “The Lincoln-Thornton Debate of 1856 at Shelbyville,” published in the Journal of the Illinois Historical Society, Vol. 10. “Thornton was to speak to an audience almost wholly biased to his views, and Lincoln faced the task of convincing jurors with their minds already made up,” Cooper wrote. At that time, Shelby County held no more than 16 Republicans.

In his opening remarks to his three-hour long talk, Lincoln referred to his friendship with the local lawyer. “I rarely arise to address my countrymen on any question of importance without experiencing conflicting emotions within me. I experience such at this hour as I have never experienced before. It is a matter of great regret that I have so learned, so able, and so eloquent a man.”

Thornton said later, “[Lincoln] spoke so very long that I became apprehensive as to any effort I might make to a wearied crowd.” Yet Thornton always spoke highly of his friend, of his fairness and honesty — his purity.

Thornton served as a constitutional delegate in 1847 and 1862, served in the Illinois General Assembly from 1859 to 1852, was elected a representative to Congress in 1864, named a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in 1870, helped organize the Illinois State Bar Association in 1875-1876, and served as the ISBA’s first president in 1877.

John McClarey says of the proposed sculpture, “It suggests a leadership quality of both Lincoln and Thornton to act with magnanimity to rivals. The posturing sets a tone for friendly and serious discussion despite their political differences on important issues of the day. The uniqueness of the statue speaks to the need for bipartisan leadership today, as in the past. Lincoln and Thornton serve as timely role models in this context.

“The message is timely.”

Linda Hughes of Springfield is a regular contributor to Illinois Times.

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