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When Abe Lincoln came to Kalamazoo

4:21 PM, Nov 8, 2012   |    comments
AP graphic of Abraham Lincoln
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KALAMAZOO, Mich. (Lansing State Journal) -- In a small park in Kalamazoo, hundreds of Michiganders gathered to hear a future president speak under a waning August sun.

He warned of the dangers of a divided nation and the scourge of partisan politics, but also extolled the promise of American freedoms.

"We are a great empire," he told the onlookers. "We stand at once the wonder and admiration of the whole world."

But there was one great stain on the nation, he warned. A stain called slavery.

It was 1856, and the man was Abraham Lincoln.

It would be the one and only time he would step foot on Michigan soil. He came to Kalamazoo as a member of Congress to campaign for John Fremont, the presidential nominee of the new Republican party born in nearby Jackson.

Lincoln told the Kalamazoo crowd, "This is the question: Shall the government of the United States prohibit slavery in the United States?"

The nation's attention is focused once again on the 16th president with Friday's first release of, "Lincoln," a much-anticipated movie by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, that explores the controversial signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a precursor to the eradication of slavery.

Being the birthplace of the party he embraced was likely one reason Lincoln made his way to Michigan. But regardless of his reasons, his message of ending slavery was likely well-received here - a state that had begun to embrace an abolitionist agenda by then and was a crucial stop for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Several sites in Michigan have been confirmed as places where escaped slaves hid on their paths to freedom.

Though it would be a mistake to call Michigan an early leader in the abolitionist movement, said Carol Mull, an historian and author of "The Underground Railroad in Michigan," pockets of strong anti-slavery activism kept the movement alive.

"Most people prior to 1850 were rather passive on the issue in the state of Michigan," Mull said. "Most people just hoped it would go away on its own and didn't take an active role. The people who did faced censure from their neighbors and their communities for what was essentially breaking the law at that time - helping people escape from slavery. But that said, there were still many people who did help."

By the time Lincoln came to Kalamazoo, more Michiganders were embracing the anti-slavery movement, many of them angry over the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The act created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and gave voters in those new regions the ability to vote on whether to allow slavery in their borders.

Lincoln urged Michigan voters to support Fremont and to take a stand against the policies of expansion.

"Have we no interest in the free territories of the United States - that they should be kept open for the homes of free white people?" he asked the crowd in Kalamazoo.

"As our northern states are growing more and more in wealth and population, we are continually in want of an outlet, through which it may pass out to enrich our country. In this we have an interest - a deep and abiding interest. There is another thing, and that is the mature knowledge we have - the greatest interest of all. It is the doctrine, that the people are to be driven from the maxims of our free government, that despises the spirit which for 80 years has celebrated the anniversary of our national independence."

By Louise Knott Ahern, Lansing State Journal

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