In this age of Ferguson, Mo., Black Lives Matter, the Confederate battle flag and other contentious symbols of racial wrongs, grievances and sins, one often hears the lament that too many of us are obsessed with the seemingly intractable problem of race today.
Be that as it may, Americans have been preoccupied with matters of race for much of their history — a none-too-surprising fact given the stain of slavery woven into the nation’s fabric from its very beginnings.
In 1858 Abraham Lincoln campaigned to unseat U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, and in the subsequent and now-celebrated debates held across the state that summer and fall, the two men clashed over not only slavery, as one would expect, but also to a surprising degree over the issue of race.
“I believe that this government of ours was founded on the white basis,” Douglas proclaimed in his July 1858 speech on the courthouse square in Bloomington. “I believe that it was established by white men, by men of European birth, or descended of European races, for the benefit of white men and their posterity in all time to come.”
Douglas was the architect of the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act which, by nullifying the Missouri Compromise of 1820, threatened to extend slavery into northern territories heretofore free.
This threat brought Lincoln to the forefront of anti-slavery movement in Illinois. By 1856, two years after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a national “anti-Nebraska” movement coalesced into the newly organized Republican Party.
Bloomington was not host to one of seven formal Lincoln-Douglas debates, but both men gave lengthy speeches in Bloomington during their epic campaign.
Douglas spoke on the courthouse square in downtown Bloomington on July 16, a little more than a month before the first officially recognized debate in Ottawa. “He thinks that the Almighty made the negro his equal and his brother,” Douglas said of Lincoln. “For my part, I do not consider the negro any kin to me, nor to any other white man.”
The “Little Giant,” as the short-statured Douglas was known, also put forth the specter of free blacks pouring into Illinois. “He (Lincoln) is going to bring negroes here, and give them the right of citizenship, the right of voting, and the right of holding office and sitting on juries; and what else?” posited Douglas. “Why, he would permit them to marry, would he not? And if he gives them that right, I suppose he will let them marry whom they please, provided they marry their equals. If the divine law declares that the white man is the equal of the negro woman, that they are on a perfect quality, I suppose he admits the right of the negro woman to marry the white man.”
Lincoln, as was his want, attended Douglas’ Bloomington speech. “Mr. L. held back for a little while, but the crowd finally succeeded in inducing him to come upon the stand,” noted The Pantagraph. “This meeting,” Lincoln told those gathered, “was called by the friends of Judge Douglas, and it would be improper for me to address it.”
Even so, he vowed to return to Bloomington and reply in earnest to “the Judge,” as Lincoln liked to call his political nemesis. And to his credit he returned on Sept. 4, during a nearly three-week stretch between the second Lincoln-Douglas debate in Freeport and the third one in Jonesboro.
Lincoln’s appearance doubled as a grand Republican Party rally that drew an estimated 7,000 supporters to the courthouse square (if friendly press reports are to be believed). “Mr. L. took up Douglas’ Bloomington speech of July 16th, and remarked that he was now here to fulfill his promise then made, of replying to that speech,” reported The Pantagraph of Lincoln’s opening remarks.
In Bloomington, Lincoln quoted at length his monumental "House Divided" speech, which he had delivered less than three months earlier in Springfield. Slavery agitation “will not cease until a crisis has been reached and passed,” he reiterated. “When the public mind rests in the belief that the evil is in a course of ultimate extinction, it will become quiet.”
Lincoln added that “the body and soul of the Republican movement was to keep slavery away from where it does not exist,” prodding it ever closer to “ultimate extinction.”
He also responded to Douglas’ accusation of “favoring the equality of the races.” In doing so, he quoted from a speech he gave in Peoria four years earlier on this topic. Lincoln used this same tactic — quoting from the Peoria speech — in the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in Ottawa.
Should free blacks be made “politically and socially our equals?” Lincoln asked. “My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded.”
With these words Lincoln attempted to carefully balance his anti-slavery beliefs with the profoundly racist attitudes held by many northern voters. Although in this instance he sounded most unlike a believer in racial equality, note the careful use of the phrase “if mine would” and the conjunction “whether,” both of which are laced with purposeful ambiguity. On other occasions when discussing racial equality he would slyly employ similar linguistic imprecision to hedge his bets.
In spite of such occasional equivocation, Lincoln in 1858 could also approach the explosive issue of race with stunning moral clarity. “Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man — this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position,” he said in Chicago on July 10 during a rally kicking off his U.S. Senate campaign. “Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”
Bloomington was an important stage for Lincoln’s rise in the 1850s as both a political leader and moral voice for the anti-slavery movement. This story is told in the new McLean County Museum of History exhibit “Abraham Lincoln in McLean County.” This permanent exhibit opened Saturday in the State Farm Gallery on the Museum’s first floor.
Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be reached at BKemp@mchistory.org.