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REMEMBERING WHAT WAS– Tablets of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas adorn the east entrance of Old Main on the campus of Knox College in Galesburg. The tablets were hung in celebration of the centennial anniversary of the Oct. 7, 1858, debate between the two senatorial candidates in Galesburg (For the Journal/Steve Davis).

Note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is sponsored by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at

The Lincoln-Douglas debates are among the most important events in United States history. The seven debates were held throughout Illinois in the summer and fall of 1858. Not only significant in their own time, the debates have since been recognized as an ultimate example of our political process — which has continued as most office seekers nationwide debate each other every campaign season.

Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were respectively the Democratic and Republican party candidates for the Senate. The primary question these men discussed was whether slavery should be extended to the nation’s territories.

Lincoln was not an abolitionist, but he loathed slavery and looked forward to a time when it disappeared. He also maintained that it should be forbidden from being established in new states that desired to join the Union. Douglas defended the concept of “Popular Sovereignty,” whereby the people who resided in western territories should have the right to decide if slavery would be allowed. The slavery question was so important that no other political issue was raised by either candidate during the debates.

Public oratory was popular in the 19th Century, as both candidates often used harsh language and outspoken mud-slinging to characterize each other. People who attended the contests also shouted out derogatory comments and catcalls toward both men. Spectators came from every part of the state to hear the speakers and newspapers throughout the country published detailed accounts.

The first debate in Ottawa was held on a blisteringly hot day during the third week of August. Most historians agree Douglas put Lincoln on the defensive; consequently, the “Little Giant” appeared to be the winner.

However, at the second contest in Freeport, Douglas was put on the defensive. Lincoln asked Douglas how he could reconcile his “Popular Sovereignty” stance with the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that ruled slaveholders had the right to introduce slavery into the territories. If Douglas responded that he supported the Dred Scott decision, he would please Southerners, but if he stood by his “Popular Sovereignty” position, most Southerners would never forgive him.

His reply that day has since been dubbed the “Freeport Doctrine.” Douglas responded to Lincoln’s query by saying the people who settled a territory would determine whether or not slavery could exist there. Put back on his heels, he hoped his answer would satisfy all parties, but it failed.

The third debate, in mid-September in downstate Jonesboro, was poorly attended. In southern Illinois, slavery was popular with many citizens. Lincoln finally came out more forcefully in Jonesboro, but he faced a hostile crowd and was characterized by Douglas as a radical. This debate is considered by most scholars a somewhat inglorious affair. The fourth debate in Charleston was on neutral ground for both men and is remembered as a stalemate.

On a chilly day at Knox College in Galesburg, the fifth debate on Oct. 7 drew more spectators than any of the other contests. Lincoln scholars are nearly unanimous in a description of this debate as the one where Lincoln found his legs, and displayed a confidence he had not shown before.

Lincoln knew Galesburg was an abolitionist town, known for harboring fugitives on the Underground Railroad. Standing erect and self-assured on a stage above the crowd, Lincoln spoke for the first time at length about the immorality of slavery.

 “I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country that contemplates slavery as a moral, social and political evil,” he said. Paraphrasing Henry Clay, he accused Douglas of “blowing out the moral lights around us.”

Lincoln biographer Benjamin Thomas described the Galesburg contest as the turning point for Lincoln. One Boston (Mass.) newspaper reporter described Lincoln as “eloquent and bold.” Lincoln was so successful emphasizing this moral theme in Galesburg that he repeated it at the sixth debate in Quincy.

Douglas, often a heavy drinker, was described as “tight” and spoke slowly, as he hammered home his contention that decisions about slavery should be left to local and state governments. In the final debate at Alton, which was a rehashing of previous points, Douglas, as his voice began to become frail, seemed worn down. An energetic Lincoln noted the Declaration of Independence applied to all men, not just some, and the slavery question was between right and wrong.

In November, the Illinois Legislature re-elected Douglas by 54 to 46, but the debates catapulted Lincoln’s name and reputation across the nation. The Republican Party nominated him for the presidency two years later. His election victory proved to be a significant watershed in American history.

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