In 1859, after his failed senate run against Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln became a minor political celebrity due to his impressive (and eventually legendary) debate performances against Douglas.
The Wisconsin Agricultural Society was hosting the ninth annual State Fair, and invited him to give a speech. Lincoln came up from Illinois on Sept. 29 and stayed at the Newhall House, which was located at the corner of what is now Broadway and East Michigan Street. (Side note: In 1883, the hotel would burn down, killing 75 people in the deadliest hotel fire in American history).
Lincoln was brought out to the fairgrounds, which were around the intersection of modern-day 12th Street and Wisconsin Avenue. He mounted a wagon-turned-stage underneath a tree to deliver his speech to the crowd. He spoke about farming and about the agricultural contest that was about to be awarded. In his usual Lincoln style, even when speaking about something as simple as fair contest winners, he delivered lines of remarkable eloquence that have lingered in history.
You can find the full text of the speech here, at Abraham Lincoln Online. Below, are the final three paragraphs:
“Some of you will be successful, and such will need but little philosophy to take them home in cheerful spirits; others will be disappointed, and will be in a less happy mood. To such, let it be said, ‘Lay it not too much to heart.’ Let them adopt the maxim, ‘Better luck next time;’ and then, by renewed exertion, make that better luck for themselves.
And by the successful, and the unsuccessful, let it be remembered, that while occasions like the present, bring their sober and durable benefits, the exultations and mortifications of them, are but temporary; that the victor shall soon be the vanquished, if he relax in his exertion; and that the vanquished this year, may be victor the next, in spite of all competition.
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! – how consoling in the depths of affliction! ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”
After delivering the speech, Lincoln toured the fair grounds. He left Milwaukee the day after for meetings in Beloit and Janseville, before returning to Illinois. And then a year after that, he was elected the 16th President of the United States.
In 1916, the Lincoln Memorial Committee, organized by Mayor Daniel Hoan, of bridge fame, commissioned a sculpture of Lincoln to commemorate the State Fair visit. The sculpture was delayed for years by World War I, but was eventually made by Gaetano Cecere, a New York-based artist, and now sits on the Lincoln Memorial Drive bridge.
And if you head to 13th Street and Wells, on the Marquette campus, you’ll find a plaque commemorating the event, reading: “At the State Fair on these grounds in 1859 near this spot Abraham Lincoln made an address. This tablet as a reminder of that event was erected under the auspices of the Old Settlers Club of Milwaukee County in 1928.”