The two friends sharing the speaker’s stand had known each other for more than 20 years.
One was the gangly lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, from Springfield, and the other was slender Doctor William H. Fihian from Danville.
The Doctor was six inches shorter than Lincoln with a head of brown hair and piercing gray eyes. They were speaking for presidential candidate John C. Fremont at a rally in Urbana, Illinois. It was Sept. 17, 1856, and before they spoke, the two enjoyed a fine lunch served in the grove where the rally was being held.
Abe and the Doctor were probably pleased at the size of the assembled audience to hear them and other speakers. The Sangamo Journal estimated 10,000 people had converged on the tiny village for the occasion.
Lincoln had no trouble speaking to large gatherings. His high-pitched, tenor voice carried a great distance.
His speeches usually had a little humor in them and his audience soon forgot his homely appearance as it was overcome by his fine ability as an orator. Fithian’s deliveries were more business-like and reflected his conservative views on life and politics. He was not in Lincoln’s class as a speaker, but he was still called upon to make political speeches in election years.
A few hundred people called Urbana home in the 1850s. They were distressed because a railroad had recently missed their town. It was built two miles west where a competing village, to be named Champaign, would be established around the iron trail. But Urbana would survive and retain its title as the Champaign County seat. The friendship between Fithian and Lincoln began in 1834 when they served in the Illinois State Legislature in Vandalia. They also served together in the legislature after Springfield became the capitol. Doctor Fithian wrote numerous letters to Amos Williams in Danville while serving in that body.
On Dec 6, 1840, the Doctor was a state senator when he fired off a letter to his friend Williams. He informed him things were not going well for the Whig party at Springfield. Conditions were so bad, he noted, that on the previous day all the Whigs had fled the building to prevent the legislature from reaching a quorum.
The flight of the legislators was led by Lincoln, who gained a bit of fame by exiting through a window. The other Whigs fled in a more conventional way, through the doors. Doctor Fithian observed the exit was a failure. “The Speaker of the House issued warrants to compel the attendance of absentees, and within three or four hours afterwards, the door keeper had ran down enough to form a quorum.”
In his opinion, things were in a mess on the political scene in the Capitol. He referred to members of the opposition majority party as Loco- Focos. He predicted they would ruin the court system in Illinois by packing the Supreme Court. Fortunately, the politicians did begin to work together and the Prairie State survived.
By the time the two spoke together in 1856 in Urbana, Lincoln had become Fithian’s attorney as well as his friend. The Doctor was a staunch supporter of Lincoln as he advanced to the nation’s highest office. Before going to Washington as President, Lincoln had a long career attending court in Vermilion County where he opened a law office with Ward Hill Lamon.
Danville is one of Lincoln’s “old familiar places” and he gave a speech from the balcony of the Fithian Home when he was a candidate for the United States Senate in 1858. He made his way out of his bedroom window to stand on a balcony and address his supporters gathered below. It has been rumored he was in his stocking feet when he delivered his speech that September evening, but that has not been confirmed.
On Feb. 12, 2023 the Vermilion County Museum Society will celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birth at the annual Lincoln Birthday Open House. The Fithian Home is now one of the treasured sites in the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area. It will be open for tours on that Sunday and guests can visit the bedroom where Abe stayed when he exited through the window to speak to his supporters.
Hundreds of students each year submit birthday cards to the Museum in honor of President Lincoln. This year’s cards will be on display in the Museum Center that day and a grand champion will be selected. This Open House on the afternoon of Feb. 12 celebrates the 214th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.