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Abraham Lincoln only once set foot on Michigan soil. His connections to the state, however, go beyond this one visit. Let’s take a look!
Lincoln remains the only U.S. President to ever apply for a patent. His inspiration came to him on the Detroit River. He was traveling there in 1847, aboard a steamboat called the Globe. The Globe encountered another steamboat, the Canada, which had run aground (In some accounts, it is the Globe that was run aground. Jason Emerson, author of Lincoln the Inventor, states that these accounts are inaccurate.). Lincoln watched as the Canada’s crew worked to free the boat. Might there be a better way to free a stranded vessel?
After returning home, Lincoln worked on the problem. Ultimately, he constructed an eighteen-inch model boat with inflatable air chambers. Inflating the chambers lifted the boat. For this, Lincoln received his patent. Without that Detroit River trip, it may never have happened!
Lincoln in Kalamazoo
Lincoln visited Kalamazoo on August 27, 1856. Although, as noted, he had traveled on the Detroit River, this was his sole sojourn on Michigan land. He was there to stump for John Charles Fremont, that year’s Republican Presidential candidate. The Fremont campaign rally occurred at Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park. Besides Lincoln, speakers included Michigan governor Kinsley S. Bingham and U.S. senator Zachariah Wells of Detroit.
The text of Lincoln’s Kalamazoo speech had seemed lost to time. Then, Tom Starr, a Lincoln enthusiast from Royal Oak, Michigan found it. In 1930, Starr discovered a bound volume of 1856 Detroit Advertiser issues. The volume had fallen behind the shelf at the Detroit Public Library. While paging through it, Starr discovered that the Advertiser had published a verbatim transcript of Lincoln’s Kalamazoo speech! In the speech, Lincoln talked at length about slavery and sectional tensions. A complete copy can be read at this link: Lincoln’s Kalamazoo Speech
The 1860 Election
The campaign button above dates from the 1860 Presidential election. That year, Lincoln captured the Republican nomination for President. He ran in a particularly contentious year. Northern and Southern Democrats nominated separate candidates and a fourth candidate represented the Constitutional Union Party.
Lincoln did not visit Michigan during the campaign. William Seward, one of his main rivals for the Republican nomination, did stump for Lincoln in the state. He received some very enthusiastic welcomes. In her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that a crowd of fifty thousand heard Seward speak in Detroit. According to Kearns Goodwin, enthusiasm rose as Seward traveled West. She writes that “thousands waited past midnight for the arrival of his train in Kalamazoo, and when he disembarked, crowds followed him along the streets to the place where he would sleep that night.”
Lincoln won the election. In Michigan, he took 88,445 votes compared to 64,958 for second-place finisher Stephen Douglas (Douglas was the Northern Democratic candidate.). In the country as a whole, Lincoln received 180 electoral votes while his competitors received a combined total of 123. William Seward, who campaigned so hard for Lincoln, later served as Lincoln’s Secretary of State.
Lincoln left Michigan one lasting legacy that remains the subject of some debate. It concerns the correct term for a Michigan resident. Gubernatorial candidates Virg Bernero and Rick Snyder have both expressed a preference for the term “Michigander” over “Michiganian.” Current Governer Jennifer Granholm and her two predecessors have expressed preferences for the latter term.
One wonders if Lincoln would have an opinion. He is attributed with the first known use of “Michigander.” In 1848, he used the word to describe former Michigan territorial governor Lewis Cass. That year, Cass was the Democratic Presidential candidate, and Lincoln was in the rival Whig Party. Lincoln accused the Democrats of “dovetailing onto the great Michigander” and then “tying him to a military tail.” In A. Lincoln: A Biography, Robert C. White explains this bit of clever wordplay: The Democrats were running Cass as a military hero, touting their candidates’ War of 1812 exploits. Lincoln was essentially calling Cass “a silly goose” (“gander” being a term for a male goose) and accusing the Democrats of inflating Cass’ military record (i.e. tying the “goose” to “a military tail.”)
This information will, of course, likely not end the debate on whether “Michigander” is a proper term. It does, however, provide yet another example of how Lincoln’s life and words remain relevant in the modern day.