167 years after only Michigan speech, Abraham Lincoln returns to Kalamazoo

KALAMAZOO, MI — After 167 years, President Abraham Lincoln has returned to the park where he gave his only public speech in the state of Michigan.

Unveiled at the same time, 2 p.m., place, Bronson Park, and date, Aug. 27, as Lincoln spoke in 1856, a statue of the president now stands, facing south, as stood Lincoln.

There may not have been the same 10,000-plus people in the park like there were the day Lincoln spoke, but a few hundred still gathered Sunday to see the unveiling of the statue.

Related: Abraham Lincoln’s Kalamazoo speech was one that ‘helped him prepare’ for trials as president

Sculpted by William Wolfe, of Terre Haute, Indiana, the 7-foot-1 statue is slightly larger than life. Lincoln himself was 6 feet, 4 inches tall. The statue stands atop a three-foot granite pedestal.

“Like each of us Abraham Lincoln was not perfect, but the principles upon which he stood are perfect — freedom, liberty equality,” said Cameron Brown, president of the Kalamazoo Abraham Lincoln Institute, the organization instrumental in commissioning the statue.

“Today marks 167 years to the very day and hour that 47-year-old Abraham Lincoln stepped off a train and strode into this park and spoke these words: ‘come to the rescue of this great principle of quality,’” Brown said. “A principle that still resonates to this day. What happened in this place on August 27, 1856, influenced the tide of events that set men and women free.”

As Brown noted, Lincoln’s Kalamazoo speech was formative in the development of his anti-slavery rhetoric. During the speech, Lincoln spoke against slavery, suggesting it should be prohibited.

One Lincoln scholar noted that Lincoln’s Kalamazoo speech was his transitional pronouncement sandwiched between his famous lost speech from early 1856 and “House Divided” speech of 1858, Brown said.

“The question of slavery, at the present day should be not only the greatest question, but very nearly the sole question,” Lincoln said to the Kalamazoo crowd in 1856 — four years prior to his first term in office.

On the same date in 2023, multiple speakers shared their thoughts on the importance of Lincoln’s Kalamazoo visit, the president himself and how people can still learn from the man he was.

“We praise Lincoln, not as a perfect person or a perfect president, but as the right president for that moment,” Michigan Superintendent of Education Michael Rice said. “Lincoln knew that to form a more perfect union in the words of the constitution, he needed to first preserve the union.

“But for Lincoln, there might not be a United States today.”

Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson asked that as those in attendance look back upon Lincoln’s visit, they remember coming together today.

“We are here because we care about not only the person we are recognizing but the leadership this person demonstrated and the words which will continue on,” Anderson said. “So, please let’s all remember and share with each other that we were here today.”

The mayor said he viewed the gathering as a recommitment ceremony to Lincoln’s legacy.

“How are we, in our time, going to make sure that this is a place where we respect and honor and care for each other?” he asked.

The statue was over a decade in the making for the institute, Brown said.

After Wolfe was selected out of a pool of interested sculptors and handpicked applicants, it took the sculptor upward of four months working day and night to create it, he said.

The statue features an un-bearded version of Lincoln, as that was how he arrived in Kalamazoo. It depicts him holding his speech close to his heart, with his other hand gesturing to people to join him, Wolfe said.

Wolfe, who said he has 15 Lincolns of assorted size in his Indiana studio, also has a sculpture on display in front of the Clark County Courthouse in Marshall, Illinois, where Lincoln had practiced law.

Prior to its unveiling, Brown issued a dedication.

“We dedicate this statute to the memory of the visitor from Illinois who graced our presence and changed the world,” he said. “We dedicate this statute to the memory of the men and women who stood on this ground in solidarity and commitment to unshackle a race of people.

“Most of all, we dedicate this statue to the young people who will come to this place and gaze upon the likeness of one who rose from the lowest ranks of poverty to rule the land in truth, justice and mercy.”

In addition to speeches from multiple individuals, the day also saw musical performances from the Dodworth Saxhorn Band, soloist Alfrelynn Roberts and a poem read by Brown.

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