By David J. Kent
Tuesday, June 20, 2023
Abraham Lincoln keeps showing up in unexpected places. This time it is the dedication of a new Lincoln statue in Atchison, Kansas. Yes, Kansas.
In a largely forgotten visit, Lincoln crossed the Missouri River by ferry in late November 1859 and promptly gave a speech in Elwood, Kansas. As one might expect, he condemned the "peculiar institution" of slavery and blamed the violence in Kansas Territory - "Bloody Kansas" - on the idea of "popular sovereignty." At this point he was simply being a good Republican and pitching the party platform rather than promoting himself as a potential candidate. In the bitter cold he traveled to Troy to repeat his speech, then on to Doniphan for yet another reprisal. After spending the night, he traveled to Atchison, where he addressed a large crowd in the auditorium of the Methodist Church. Despite a nearly two-and-a-half-hour discourse, the local newspaper didn't bother to report the speech. Lincoln also went to Leavenworth (home of the prison) before heading back to Illinois.
Which gets us back to the new statue. On June 9, 2023, the life size statue was unveiled on the grounds of the Atchison County Courthouse (the original Methodist Church having been moved to another location long ago). The statue is imposing, and not just because Lincoln's 6-foot, 4-inch frame stood head-and-shoulders above most of his peers. This statue has Lincoln donning a thick buffalo hide to protect him from the cold. He also tips his top hat to passers-by.
According to the Atchison Globe, artist Aleda Haug explains that:
“My sculpture uses some artistic liberty to have him wearing a buffalo coat,” Haug said and cited several reasons. Haug explained she did not want to intrude on the Native American tradition of wrapping themselves in buffalo skins and she wanted to honor Buffalo Soldiers who often wore buffalo robes in wintertime. Haug said she also thought a coat would add more of a three-dimensional interest to the back of the sculpture."
And what about the hat?
“The tipping of his hat I felt was of importance to give him an approachable feel,” Haug said. “He was running for president and had a personable character.”
Atchison today is a quaint little town (population ~11,000) and also home to Amelia Earhart's birthplace and hangar museum, which you should definitely visit when you go to see the new statue.
While Lincoln's speech in Atchison went largely unrecorded, notes from his other Kansas speeches showed it blended his critique of popular sovereignty with a preview of some of the arguments he would make in about two months in his Cooper Union speech, widely considered "the speech that made Lincoln president." It also made note of the news of the day: John Brown's execution. Lincoln thought Brown had “shown great courage, rare unselfishness,” but believed had gone too far. “Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against the state. We cannot object,” Lincoln reasoned, “even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.”
Read more about the statue dedication in the Atchison Globe.