At 11:30 p.m. on Monday the stage of Harbach Theater was scattered with strips of paper, glue sticks, cutting boards, string, hammers, and several students who knew they would get little, if any, sleep that night.
At 10 a.m. Tuesday, the exhibit about the Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858 went up in the lobby of the Ford Center for Fine Arts (CFA). Professor of History Catherine Denial’s Pubic History class has been working on the project since January.
The display, built to represent the connection between Knox College and the Galesburg community in 1858, featured a brick exterior, an interior with casing and floorboards, and most notably, a window like the one in Old Main, which visitors climbed through just as Abraham Lincoln did to mount the stage and give his speech in the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate Oct. 7, 1858.
“We wanted the interior [of the display] to be the classroom, and the exterior to be the town. The two were inseparable, especially at that time. The town was booming, and the college was trying to find its purpose,” said senior Marty Helms who was responsible for the majority of the design.
A year before the debate, religious controversy in the community brought conflict to Knox. There were no Presbyterians in Galesburg who owned slaves, but the Presbyterian Church had a large following in the South where slaveholders were permitted to join. Offended by this, abolitionists in Galesburg officially broke from the Presbyterians and started their own Congregationalist church.
In 1857 the Congregationalist President of Knox College Jonathan Blanchard, was deposed by Presbyterian trustees allied with George Washington Gale, who supposedly said, “I would rather this school failed than see Blanchard in charge of it.”
All but one of the ten members of the Knox College class of 1857 refused to walk in the graduation ceremony in protest.
“It was no fluke that they came to Galesburg for the debate,” said senior Ike Glinsmann.
In addition to feeling privileged to have the candidates visit their city, which was a rising industrial hub, Glinsmann explained that it was an opportunity for the college to demonstrate that although it had fired its ardently abolitionist president, it supported many of the same principles Lincoln did.
Denial suggested her class use the Lincoln-Douglas debate as the subject of their project, knowing that its 150th anniversary this year would be significant on both local and national levels. She posed the question of how to make her class’s exhibit one that would be new and unique, rather than one that would merely retell a story everyone has already heard; but from there her students took things into their own hands.
“We wanted to focus on the people who would have been there at the debate,” said Glinsmann.
“We get to see the history behind the history,” Denial said.
Each student did research and compiled a binder of information on either a specific person or a composite character they made up, who was living in Galesburg at the time. They then portrayed those characters by dressing and speaking the same way they suspected their characters would while interacting with each other and visitors to the exhibit.
Some characters were community members who discussed the impact of legislation and politics on the city. Others were Knox students who talked about the institution’s attitude towards the education of females and black people by explaining that while the college was progressive for the time, there was a separate seminary for females that males could visit only on Friday nights, and females had different coursework and graduation requirements than males.
“There has always been a healthy amount of political debate here,” said Glinsmann. “We made a strong attempt to show that Knox hasn’t changed.”