It was a race for Illinois' seat in the U.S. Senate. And as with most elections, the debates that took place on the campaign trail were political theater at its finest.
The contenders were Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. And for three months in 1858, Lincoln, a lawyer and ex-congressman, faced off in a series of seven debates with Douglas, the incumbent Democrat.
Lincoln had hoped to unseat Douglas, and thousands of people showed up for the U.S. Senate debates. And though Lincoln lost that election, the debates, which focused on state's rights and slavery, earned him national renown. Two years later, Lincoln was elected to the U.S. presidency.
So important were these debates to American history that C-SPAN, cable TV's public affairs network, has chosen to televise re-enactments of them to mark the channel's 15th
anniversary. From Aug. 20 to Oct. 15, C-SPAN will televise "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858" in the Illinois towns in which they originally occurred.
"We chose this event to commemorate our anniversary because these debates are known as the most important in American political history, and they are the historical antecedent of C-SPAN," says Rayne Pollack, C-SPAN spokeswoman.
C-SPAN will sponsor the debates, which are being held weekend days as close to the original 1858 date as possible. Local actors in each of the seven towns will portray Lincoln and Douglas. In addition, the towns are scheduling historical events.
C-SPAN is running the "Lincoln-Douglas Preview Series" (noon on Saturdays, except on debate days) through the end of October. Each show will include footage from local sites as they prepare for the events.
The re-enactments of the debates will air live from noon to 6 p.m.
For information on the C-SPAN debates, call (800) 577-8215. The Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau will have a free brochure on the debates; call (800) 545-7300.
The following are the sites and dates for "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858":
* Ottawa, Aug. 20: Re-enactors will appear in Ottawa's Washington Square, where the original debate was held Aug. 21, 1858.
* Freeport, Aug. 27: Originally held Aug. 27, 1858, this year's debate will be held in the Oakdale Nature Preserve.
* Jonesboro, Sept. 17: The original debate was held at the Union County Fairgrounds Sept. 15, 1858. The debate this year will be held at the Shawnee National Forest's Lincoln Park.
* Charleston, Sept. 18: The original debate was held at the Coles County Fairgrounds Sept. 18, 1858. That's the same location for this year's debate.
* Galesburg, Oct. 8: The arena for the original debate Oct. 7, 1858, was Knox College's "Old Main." That building will be the site this year for the debate as well.
* Quincy, Oct. 9: The debate re-enactment will be held in Washington Park, the site of the original debate Oct. 13, 1858.
* Alton, Oct. 15: The original debate was held Oct. 15, 1858. This year's debate will be held at the town's Lincoln-Douglas Square.