Report of Speech at Vandalia, Illinois, 23 September 18561
About one o’clock preparations were made to commence speaking. The air was so chilly that it was thought best not to occupy the stand erected, and as no room could be procured which would hold those assembled, a temporary stand was erected against the southern wall of the State House. Mr. Bross was first called for. He began in a humorous and conciliatory strain to remove any prejudice which might be felt towards him as coming from a distance, and particularly from the “infected district” of Chicago,2 and while speaking with pride of that robust metropolis of the North-West, at the same time spoke in terms of high and just praise of the beauty and fertility of Southern Illinois, and of Cairo, its future metropolis.
Having thus “cleared the deck,” he began the action by establishing his consistency as a life-long Democrat compelled to break hands with the squad who had deserted the ranks and borne off the old Democratic standard with them. He showed how the two old parties agreed on this question of slavery-extension.3 (At this point a man with a red face and green goggles rose up exclaiming in the argumentative style of our opponents, “You’re a Black Republican.” Mr. B. called after him good-naturedly, to return and listen, but failing to recover the man, who walked sturdily away, he told a story which sent a short volley of laughter after him, and continued his argument. He closed his address by a tribute to Col. Fremont, so earnest and so truthful that the audience were moved like a forest under a strong wind.4
Hon. Ab. Lincoln, the veteran Whig orator of Illinois, having now arrived, was next called out.5 He began by saying that a few days previously, passing through Vandalia to an appointment of his own, he learned that a Demoeratic meeting was in progress in the square and came up.6 The speaker on the stand was one of his earliest political and personal friends, Mr. Davis, known in those parts as “Long Jim Davis.” Long Jim at the meeting referred to paid him Mr. (L.) particular attention, and Mr. L., a gentleman of the old school, now proceeded to pay his respects to his long friend. Mr. D. had abused him because he voted while in Congress in favor of the Wilmot Proviso. But after that wicked vote, this same gentleman, believing that he (Mr. L.) the only Whig from Illinois, had some influence with Gen. Taylor, requested his influence to procure for him (Davis) a certain Land Office, and he got it! (Laughter.)7
One of Mr. D.’s arguments to prove the Republican a disunion party was, that they made their flag with only thirteen stars on it! At the close of Mr. D.’s speech, Mr. L. took him to the corner of the State House and pointing to the Democratic flag (still flying there), requested him to count the stars. He did so, and lo there were just thirteen! (Old liner in the crowd— “That’s for the thirteen original States.”) Lincoln— “Then you don’t care anything about the new States. That leaves Illinois out of the Union!8
Mr. Davis admittted in his speech (in order to hedge against it) that he made the first Anti-Nebraska speech printed in Illinois—9 and added, “if any of these litte men (Republicans) want a speech on the subject I will send them one of mine.” Mr. L. thought it must be a very little man who could learn anything from that speech. (Laughter.) Having thus disposed of his friend “Long Jim,” in a manner so genial and mirthful that the victim himself, had he been present, could not have taken umbrage at it, Mr. L. addressed himself to the general topics of the day. He adverted to the attempt to stigmatize the Republican party as fanatical and disunion on account of the sentiments of particular supporters of that party, and showed, by quoting from the disunion speeches of Toombs, Slidell, Wise and Brooks, that this argument was a two-edged sword.10
A medical gentleman launched another democratic argument at the speaker by saying, as he shrugged his shoulders, “I must be a woolly head!”11 L.— “Very well, shave off the wool then.”12 This repartee told with the more effect, as there was an unlucky twist in the doctor’s hair and whiskers, and was evidently enjoyed by the audience more than by himself.
He demonstrated that the Republicans are walking in the “old paths”— read the recorded sentiments of Washington, Jefferson and others, and dwelt at length upon the position of Henry Clay, (now quoted against him,) the Nestor of the old Whig party. After quoting the declarations of these canonized leaders of both the great parties, he pointed to the doctor who had before interrupted him, and inquired, “What more than this has Fremont said, that you call him a woolly head? I ask you, sir?13
The Doctor seemed suddenly to have lost the organs of speech. L.— “You can make this charge, and yet, when called upon to justify it, your lips are sealed.” One or two lawyers put their heads together with the Doctor’s. Mr. L. (smiling)— “That’s right, gentlemen, take counsel together, and give us your answer.14 Doctor (trying to look cheerful)— “He found the woolly horse and ate dogs.”15 L.— That aint true— but if it was, how does it prove that Fremont is a woolly head— how?” The Doctor, wearing the expression of a man standing on a bed of live coals, did not get off any answer. Mr. L. (after a long pause)— You’re treed, my friend.” (Loud laughter.)16
Both the speakers were frequently interrupted by certain Buchanan men, whose zeal was without knowledge, and we are confident that all who adventured upon this undertaking went away with a lively recollection of the adage about handling edge tools.17 Although much of the speaking was a hand-to-hand fight, owing to the discourtesy of certain opposers, yet the self-possession, wit, and unflagging good nature of the speakers, made the discussion tell on the sober, honest men who listened.
Mr. Peck was then called forward, but being compelled to leave I did not hear his speech, though I heard of it— as an uncommonly able one.18
1This report appeared in the September 27, 1856 edition of the Daily Democratic Press.
2Author and antislavery reformer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal in 1858 comparing slavery to disease. He insisted, “We intend to set & keep a cordon sanitaire all around the infected district, & by no means suffer the pestilence to spread.” However, in this context, Bross may be referring to the spread of antislavery principles “infecting” Chicago.
William H. Gilman, et al., eds., The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960-1982), 14:197; Mark L. Berger, The Revolution in the New York Party Systems, 1840-1860 (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1973), 138.
3The “two old parties” refers to the Democratic party and the Whig party. The establishment of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 maintained sectional harmony by admitting states above 36 degrees and 30 minutes north latitude as free only and states below that line to be admitted with slavery. However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the introduction of "popular sovereignty"—allowing the residents of each new state to decide its status of free or slave—created new conflict between the Democrats and Whigs and effectively destroyed the Whig Party.
“An Act to Authorize the People of the Missouri Territory to Form a Constitution and State Government, and for the Admission of such State into the Union on an Equal Footing with the Original States, and to Prohibit Slavery in Certain Territories,” 6 March 1820, Statutes at Large of the United States 3 (1846):548; Robert Pierce Forbes, The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 7; William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 154; “An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas,” 30 May 1854, Statutes at Large of the United States 10 (1855):277-90; Kenneth C. Martis, The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789-1989 (New York: MacMillan, 1989), 32-33.
4In the 1856 Federal Election, Republicans nominated John C. Fremont as their first presidential candidate, while Democrats nominated James Buchanan. The American Party, in its final participation in a presidential election, nominated Millard Fillmore.
Philip G. Auchampaugh, “Campaign of 1856,” Dictionary of American History, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), 1:420-21; Howard W. Allen and Vincent A. Lacey, eds., Illinois Elections, 1818-1990 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), 10.
5Between July and November 1856, Lincoln crisscrossed Illinois canvassing on behalf of Republican Party candidates for political office. He delivered over fifty speeches in support of the Republican cause.
Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, 1:425-33; The Lincoln Log: A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1 November 1856,
6Lincoln stopped at the Democratic meeting in Vandalia on September 18, 1856.
The Lincoln Log: A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham Lincoln, 18 September 1856,
7In 1849, James M. Davis was seeking appointment as register of the U.S. General Land Office in Vandalia, Illinois. Davis wrote Lincoln several letters seeking Lincoln’s assistance in securing the position. Davis received the appointment, serving as register from July 1849 until 1853.
James M. Davis to Abraham Lincoln; James M. Davis to Abraham Lincoln; James M. Davis to Abraham Lincoln; James M. Davis to Abraham Lincoln; David M. Woodson to Abraham Lincoln; Abraham Lincoln to Josiah B. Herrick; Register of all Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States, on the Thirtieth September, 1849 (Washington, DC: Gideon, 1849), 135; Register of all Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States, on the Thirtieth September, 1851 (Washington, DC: Gideon, 1851), 140; Register of Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States, on the Thirtieth September, 1853 (Washington, DC: Robert Armstrong, 1853), 138; Illinois Journal (Springfield), 18 July 1849, 4:3.
8This sentence is attributed to Abraham Lincoln.
9Davis’ printed speech could not be found.
10Pro-slavery Democrats such as the men Lincoln mentions began to threaten in 1856 that the election of Republican candidates would lead to secession. Only a few weeks after this speech, on October 9, Henry A. Wise wrote that if Fremont were elected, he could arm fifty thousand men the next morning for revolution.
Sidney Fine and Gerald S. Brown, eds., The American Past: Conflicting Interpretations of the Great Issues (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 1:534; Clement Eaton, “Henry A. Wise and the Virginia Fire Eaters of 1856,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 21 (March 1935), 500-501.
11“Woolly head” was a nineteenth-century term for African Americans, derived from the texture of their hair. Opponents of the Republicans attached the term to the party and used it in partisan attacks. Supporting abolitionism was also described through the phrase, “found the woolly horse.”
The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (New York: Century, 1889), 8:6972; David S. Reynolds, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times (New York: Penguin, 2020), 377; Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, 1:428.
12The sentence is attributed to Lincoln.
13This quotation is attributed to Lincoln.
14These quotations are attributed to Lincoln.
15The Doctor is referencing a story made up by famed entertainer Phineas T. Barnum. In 1848, Fremont had undertaken an expedition that involved crossing the Rocky Mountains; his party encountered a devastating snowstorm that temporarily ceased all advancement. When Barnum heard the news that Fremont had been lost in the snowy mountains, but had survived, he grasped the story for his own purposes. Barnum, who had recently purchased a horse covered with “thick, fine hair or wool, which curled tight to his skin,” placed his new acquisition on display in New York and announced that it had been captured in the Rocky Mountains by Fremont’s party.
During an earlier expedition to find a route across the Rocky Mountains, Fremont wrote in his journal, “I have already said that our provisions were very low; we had neither tallow nor grease of any kind remaining, and the want of salt became one of our greatest privations. The poor dog, which had been found in the Bear River Valley, and which had been a compagnon de voyage ever since, had now become fat, and the mess to which it belonged requested permission to kill it. Leave was granted. Spread out on the snow, the meat looked very good.”
John Bigelow, Memoir of the Life and Public Services of John Charles Fremont (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1856), 92-94, 100, 357, 367-68; P. T. Barnum, Struggles and Triumphs: Or, Forty Years' Recollections of P. T. Barnum (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1869), 150.
16These quotations are attributed to Lincoln.
17The author may be referring to the Old Testament of the Christian Bible which states, “If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success.”
Ecclesiastes 10:10.
18Buchanan defeated Fremont and Fillmore in the presidential election of 1856. Buchanan captured Illinois with 44.1 percent of the vote to 40.2 percent for Fremont and 15.7 for Fillmore. In Fayette County, of which Vandalia was the county seat, Buchanan garnered 52.3 percent of the vote to 44 percent for Fillmore and a mere 3.7 percent for Fremont.
Webster's New Geographical Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1988), 1284; Howard W. Allen and Vincent A. Lacey, eds., Illinois Elections, 1818-1990 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), 10, 136; Philip G. Auchampaugh, “Campaign of 1856,” Dictionary of American History, 1:420-21.

Printed Document, 1 page(s), Daily Democratic Press (Chicago, IL), 27 September 1856, 2:3.