BOISE • To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Idaho becoming a territory last week, the Idaho Legislature renamed the Senate auditorium the Abraham Lincoln Auditorium.
The new plaque by the auditorium door includes a quote attributed to Lincoln: “There is both a power and a magic in public opinion. To that let us now appeal.”
Doing an Internet search for the quote brings up only one reference: A suffragist newspaper published in 1912. It cites the line, but not the original source.
So where did the quote come from? And is it authentic? While Lincoln historians disagree, the circumstances surrounding the quote lead to a lesson in Lincoln and his connections to the Gem State.
A Quote in Question
Former Lt. Gov. and attorney general David Leroy, the top Lincoln expert in the state, was charged with picking the quote.
He said it comes from Lincoln’s Lost Speech.
“That was my first job, was to validate that (quote),” Leroy said.
Lincoln delivered the Lost Speech in Bloomington, Ill. in 1856. Leroy said it was a turning point for Lincoln’s political career — an electrifying oration that signaled his presidential aspirations.
But no verified transcripts exist.
The quote comes from the disputed Whitney transcript. Chicago attorney Henry Clay Whitney, who was present at the speech, published this version nearly 40 years after Lincoln stood in front of the Bloomington audience.
Two other Lincoln historians disagreed with Leroy on the quote’s authenticity: Geoff Elliott, a historian who has studied Lincoln for 40 years, and Harold Holzer, one of the nation’s leading Lincoln experts and author of “Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America” and “Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory.” Both said they didn’t think the quote was authentic, and a search of the online Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln — which contains every known quote of the 16th president — brought up nothing.
That’s normal for Lincoln quotes. Elliott estimates about 50 percent of phrases attributed to Lincoln aren’t authentic.
“They are paraphrases, confused with real quotes from other famous icons, or even conjured up out of thin air,” Elliott wrote in an e-mail.
A Deliberate Choice
Leroy stood by his choice for the quote. During a Thursday interview, he explained how he came to the decision.
First of all, most Lincoln transcripts are suspect, even from his most famous speeches, Leroy pointed out. Historians rely on either Lincoln’s speech notes, which he sometimes deviated from, or wrote out after the speech, or newspapers and stenographers, which sometimes conflict with each other. Without electronic recording, there is no way to verify anything he said.
The quote is also the most compelling Leroy found on public discourse. He searched through “The Lincoln Treasury,” a compilation of Lincoln quotes published in 1950, and found the saying. It’s the most succinct and eloquent commentary on public opinion in the text, Leroy said.
But what excited Leroy most was the quote’s link to Idaho.
Lincoln gave the speech seven years before the Idaho Territory formed. But present in Bloomington that day was politician Jesse Dubois, friend of Lincoln and father of future Idaho U.S. Sen. Fred Dubois. After the speech, Dubois declared “that is the greatest speech ever made in Illinois, and it puts Lincoln on the track for the presidency,” Whitney wrote, according to “Lincoln’s Lost Speech” by Elwell Crissey.
“The Idaho connection was particularly astounding,” Leroy said.
But in his book, even Crissey acknowledges that the Whitney transcript is “long-disputed.” Leroy is aware of the controversy, and said it’s healthy.
“You need to be skeptical,” Leroy said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of things out there attributed to Lincoln that Lincoln never said.”
But the historians agreed on one thing: The sentiment of the plaque is appropriate.
“Ihope they leave the plaque in place,”Elliott said.