A banner declaring “Knox College for Lincoln” draped over Old Main set the stage for the 150 year anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Galesburg last Saturday.
Galesburg is the fifth city of nine to host the Lincoln-Douglas debates, also known as “Reunion Tour ’08.” Located on the east side of Old Main, where plaques of Lincoln and Douglas surround the entrance, the audience became witness to history as Abraham Lincoln, a Republican upstart, debated Stephen Douglas, the most well-known Democrat of the time. Abraham Lincoln was played by George Buss and Stephen Douglas was played by Timothy Connors. The actors spent the previous day visiting Galesburg grade schools and high schools.
As the chairs filled up, the audience spilled onto the grass.
Director of Public Relations Karrie Heartlein said, “Given the size of the crowd, people are excited about [the debate]…There’s a lot of interest in Lincoln and especially in Knox College. And our building is still here.”
The building she spoke of is Old Main, the last remaining structure to host a debate between Lincoln and Douglas during the 1800’s.
Ed Finch, who plays Captain Silas Terry, U.S. Navy, was the moderator and wrote the script of the debate. He thought the audience would have positive reactions and learn how and why Lincoln debated.
Douglas needed to regain his Senate seat in order to run for president, a lifelong dream. However, his main obstacle was Lincoln, a skilled lawyer. In 1858, the main issue of the campaign was slavery. Lincoln believed slavery was an abomination and should not proliferate while Douglas championed popular sovereignty, allowing states to decide whether they wanted to have slavery or not. Lincoln and Douglas agreed to debate in nine of the congressional districts of Illinois. The cities were chosen for ease of access. They traveled to these locations by boat, train, and carriage. In the original debate, the audience in Galesburg was estimated at 10,000. Lincoln and Douglas were debating to sway and gain attention from former Whigs who witnessed their party dissolve.
The debate began with Lincoln walking through the doors of Old Main and declaring, “Well at least now I can say I have been through college.” In the original debate, the stage was built in a hurry and was so high, the doors would not open. To get to the stage, Lincoln climbed through a window in Old Main, which is now the location of Knox President Roger Taylor’s office.
After the speeches, the moderator asked Lincoln and Douglas questions submitted by the audience and called on reporters. Some of the reporters featured were Knox students dressed in period clothing. Many of the questions and responses were related to modern day campaigning. There was just as much slander and smearing in the 1858 campaign as there is in the current one. Lincoln, who advocated granting natural rights regardless of color, was charged with advocating race mixing. Candidates had to tailor their speeches and attitudes to their audiences. Lincoln had to become more radical in heavily Republican areas.
Douglas eventually won the Senate seat but Lincoln was the overall winner. Douglas mentioned popular sovereignty in the historic Dred Scott case, breaking Democratic support for his presidential campaign. Lincoln received widespread recognition from the debates by Republican leaders, leading to his nomination in 1860 and the presidency. Douglas and Lincoln reconciled, with Douglas even holding Lincoln’s hat during his inauguration in 1861. Douglas died shortly after giving a speech known as “Save the Flag” to convince the South to stay in the Union.
Asked what she learned from the debate, senior Larissa Roy said, “It was nice to hear more about Stephen Douglas because we don’t hear much about him in this day and age because he is swept into the dustbin of history. We miss a lot of that perspective.”
Senior Elena Gleason, said, “I thought it was good that we got to get a little more of a sense of who they were as individuals rather than their policy positions.”
“Or just this magic figurehead we see up plastered next to Old Main,” Roy added.
Coming as far as Anchorage, Alaska, Pat Yenney, who is visiting a relative in Galesburg, said “…[the debate] gave us something to think about, putting country first, forgetting our political divisions.”