Lincoln movie calls to mind his connections to Michigan

Nov 16, 2012

"Thank God for Michigan."

It’s supposedly what Abraham Lincoln uttered in May of 1861 as 75,000 Michigan volunteers marched into Washington – the first to answer his call for help from what were then the western states in preserving the union.

But there’s no proof Lincoln said that, according to Bob Garrett.

He’s an archivist who researched Lincoln for the Michigan Historical Center in Lansing.

“Who knows? A lot of things like this get passed around and, you know … I don’t know. I would call that apocryphal. Maybe he said it. He might have. He very well might have, but I have not seen any evidence that he said that,” Garret said.

But Lincoln did seem to have some attachment to at least one Michigan military unit.

Michigan’s 24th Volunteer Infantry saw action in several big battles, including Gettysburg. After his assassination, Lincoln’s funeral train was met by the 24th when it arrived in Springfield-Illinois.

By the way, the chair Lincoln was in when John Wilkes Booth shot him -- you can find it now in Dearborn, where it’s part of the historical collection at the Henry Ford.

There's only one instance we know of where Lincoln actually set foot on Michigan soil... Lincoln made a visit to Kalamazoo, arriving by train in August of 1856 to deliver a speech in Bronson Park.

There’s only one instance we know of where Lincoln actually set foot on Michigan soil (although he may have floated past Michigan on the Detroit River when he worked as a riverboat hand).

Lincoln made a visit to Kalamazoo, arriving by train in August of 1856 to deliver a speech in Bronson Park.

“He came to the park here, which was basically the center of town to participate in a campaign rally which was promoting John Fremont, the first Republican presidential candidate,” said Tom George.

He’s a former legislator from Kalamazoo, past president of the Michigan Historical Society, and Lincoln enthusiast. He made a film documentary about Lincoln’s Michigan visit.

“If you read the contemporary accounts, the most notable thing about the rally wasn’t that Lincoln was here. It was the size of the crowd. Kalamazoo was a village then of a few thousand people and the accounts say that between 10 and 20 thousand people attended. Many of them were brought in by special trains,” said George.

Lincoln was a former Illinois congressman and a minor political figure at the time. He was almost the Republicans’ first vice presidential candidate.

Lincoln was the only person from outside Michigan invited to speak.

There was no known account of what Lincoln said until the 1930s, when a Lincoln researcher stumbled onto it in newspaper story.

Here’s part of it:

“The question of slavery at the present day should be not only the greatest question, but very nearly the sole question. Our opponents, however, prefer that this should not be the case.”

Tom George says Lincoln was already developing the rationale he would use later in his famous “house divided” speech

That’s the one where Lincoln said “a house divided against itself cannot stand” – that the United States must either become a nation that accepts slavery everywhere or rejects it altogether.

Guess who was the first person known to have used that term for people who live here? Yes. Abraham Lincoln.

Now, listen up, Michiganders.

Guess who was the first person known to have used that term for people who live here?

Yes. Abraham Lincoln. It’s in the congressional record, and it was not a compliment. 

Congressman Lincoln was serving as a member of the Whig Party. Former Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass was the Democrats’ nominee for president.

Lincoln, in a floor speech, was basically calling Cass a silly goose.

But Lincoln liked a good pun – so he called Cass, you know, a Michi-“gander” (To find the specific reference, scroll down to page 509 to “Military Tail of the Great Michigander.”)

For more, you can read Bob Garrett's piece on Lincoln’s Michigan connections.

And you can listen below to Tom George explaining the political motive behind Lincoln’s Kalamazoo visit: