C-Span, Illinois re-enact Lincoln-Douglas debates History in the Re-making


Freeport, Ill. -- A rental car pulls up to the large boulder sitting in a park off Douglas Street. A young, blond girl bounds out and does to the boulder what, undoubtedly, most of her peers would do.

She climbs on it, little caring that it marks the site of one of the most talked-about debates in American history.

In 1858, Freeport and six other Illinois cities were visited by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, two men locked in a senatorial contest that, for much of the nation, was crystallizing the two issues then dominating the American consciousness: slavery and states' rights. Douglas would go on to win the contest, but the national attention garnered by Lincoln would serve him well when he ran for president two years later.

Beginning today and continuing for two months, C-Span, the cable channel known for its gavel-to-gavel congressional coverage, will do its best to make Americans more aware of the series of debates that one historian wrote is "vastly more admired than known."

From each of the seven debate cities, on a Saturday or Sunday as close to the original date as possible, C-Span will broadcast six hours of live television -- including re-enactments of the three-hour debates.

Spurred on by its own 15th anniversary, C-Span officials approached the mayors of all seven cities last year. Re-create your debates, they said, using local talent and local money, and we'll come in and broadcast them, as though we'd been there in 1858.

All seven mayors agreed, the state of Illinois chipped in $20,000 for each site and C-Span spent $300,000 to $500,000 promoting the debates, providing staff people to coordinate the coverage and putting together educational materials. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were on their way back to center stage.

In most cases, this will be the first time the debates have been restaged in their entirety. Although there have been dozens of re-enactments over the past 136 years, most have used only snippets of the original three-hour events.

"I think it's tremendous," says Bernard Lock, chairman of the historic preservation commission for Ottawa, site of the first debate. "C-Span's involvement should help clarify what the debates really were."

Between Aug. 21 and Oct. 15, 1858, the two men debated seven times -- Lincoln had wanted 50 to 100 debates, but Douglas agreed to seven, one in each of the state's congressional districts where they hadn't already spoken together. (Although they hadn't actually debated, they had spoken within a day of each other in Chicago and Springfield.) Crowds estimated as high as 20,000 people listened as the two men spoke on the issues of the day. One man would speak for an hour, then the other would speak for 90 minutes, then the first man would have 30 minutes for a rejoinder.

Among the first events where reporters used shorthand to transcribe what was said, the debates often centered on charges and counter-charges by both men, sometimes regarding points that must have seemed trivial even then. And the transcripts deflate some myths: neither was Douglas as virulently pro-slavery as some would believe, nor was Lincoln much like the Great Emancipator of popular legend.

But they also reveal much about the political growth of Lincoln -- a man who started in Ottawa by attempting to downplay his opposition to slavery, and ended in Alton by blasting it as a moral wrong.


I hold that each and every state of this Union is a sovereign power, with the right to do as it pleases on this question of slavery.

Stephen A. Douglas

Aug. 21, 1858

As a Lincoln presenter for eight years, Max Daniels, 55, belongs to a society of men who perform as Lincoln, but don't like being called impersonators. Recently laid off from his bank maintenance supervisor's job, he and his wife, Donna, are planning to work full-time portraying Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.

Sitting on a park bench in Ottawa's Washington Square, just a few yards from a boulder marking the site of the 1858 debate, he certainly looks the part -- tall, thin, with a jet black beard and a face that's hauntingly familiar.

Familiar, that is, as Lincoln the President. But Lincoln the Debater was clean-shaven.

"We discussed asking him to shave it off, but we just wouldn't do that," says Sandra Burns, co-chair of the Ottawa debate organizing committee.

After all, she adds, it's Lincoln the President most people want to see anyway.

Reliving history is old hat for this city at the confluence of the Fox and Illinois rivers. Ottawa has been re-staging its debate annually for three years, so the folks here know all about bringing the mid-19th century to life. Officials even sponsor a symposium that attracts historians from throughout the country (this year's topic: "The Anti-Lincoln Tradition").

For Mayor Forrest Buck, 63, the re-creations play nicely into his three-pronged plan to bring more tourism to his city -- an effort spurred by $80,000 a year in hotel and motel taxes earmarked for that specific purpose.

"So many of these people go ahead and make a plywood Santa Claus village and think tourists are going to come," says Mr. Buck. "We sat down and worked it out and said, 'What do we have that's unique to us?' There are only three things we could come up with: One was the Lincoln-Douglas debate, another was the home of William Boyce [founder of the Boy Scouts of America] and the third was the riverfront. So that's what we're promoting."


I am impliedly, if not expressly pledged to the belief in the right and duty of congress to prohibit slavery in all the United States territories.

Abraham Lincoln

Aug. 27, 1858

Brenna Briski, 10, the little girl climbing atop the Freeport boulder, knows Abraham Lincoln was one of the men who spoke here. The second name has escaped her for the moment.

Her father, Tony, who brought his family here from southern California partly so Brenna could learn about the Midwest and its history, tries to help.

"Remember when we were up at Comiskey Park the other day?" he asks, recalling the family's visit to Chicago. "Remember when we got off at 35th Street? Who did I say was buried there?"

But Brenna doesn't remember who is buried at the Stephen A. Douglas State Historic Site on the city's south side. She does a little better when asked what the men were debating, answering quizzically, after a few seconds' thought, "Slavery?"

"I wouldn't know any of this," she adds, looking at her dad, "except that he's a history teacher."

And, as such, Mr. Briski no doubt is familiar with the Freeport Doctrine, which Stephen Douglas espoused here in 1858. Even though a Supreme Court ruling forbade the federal government from outlawing slavery in the territories, Douglas argued, citizens could keep it out by enacting "unfriendly legislation." The issue would ultimately be decided, he said, when each territory was admitted to the Union and a state constitution was drawn up.

As recently as 1988, the site where Douglas explained the doctrine to an audience estimated at 15,000 had devolved into a parking lot with a commemorative boulder on its southwest corner. That year, the property was handed over to the city's Lincoln/Douglas Society, founded in 1929. Its members ripped up the asphalt and planted grass, then commissioned a local artist to produce a statue for the site.

Lily Tolpo's work may be the finest memorial among the seven debate cities. Atop a platform raised about three feet off the ground, it shows Douglas talking while Lincoln sits (the majority of other paintings and monuments depicting the debate has those roles reversed).

Freeport, which owes its name to founder Tutty Baker's supposed willingness to offer free ferry rides across the Pecatonica River, has another distinction when it comes to the debates: it boasts the only duo who regularly perform as Lincoln and Douglas.

Rich Sokup, 53, an insurance agent and Freeport native, has been portraying Douglas since 1958. He teamed up with George Buss, 37, a high school science teacher and former Republican candidate for state senator, in 1986.

While the people of Freeport know a debate was held here, both men agree, most don't know many of the particulars -- and are in for quite an education if they come and listen to the entire three hours.

Some are starting their education early. Like Mayor Dick Weiss, 57, who suspects Douglas may have been the winner at Freeport.

"I knew more about Bobby Knight and Babe Ruth than I knew about Lincoln and Douglas," Mr. Weiss says. "I didn't even know about Douglas. And now that I know, I'm not sure that he didn't cream him."


In my opinion the Signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference whatever to the Negro, when they declared all men to have been created equal.

Stephen A. Douglas

Sept. 15, 1858

By all accounts, Jonesboro was the least eventful of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, and that's just fine with the folks putting together next month's re-enactment.

"We are trying to be the most country, the most Southern and least-organized of all the debates," says Esther Mary Ayers, 73, a former school teacher who is in charge of organizing the 1994 debate.

If they succeed, they'll end up with a remarkably close approximation of the real thing. Way down in the southern tip of Illinois, Jonesboro was the smallest of the seven cities, with a population of only 800. And its debate was the most sparsely attended, with a crowd of only about 1,200; many area residents, it seemed, opted for the state fair in Centralia, some 60 miles away.

But the differences in Jonesboro go beyond mere numbers. Located in a region known as Egypt (no one knows exactly why, although some speculate the nearby confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers called to mind the Nile River delta), Jonesboro is actually 100 miles farther south than Richmond, Va.

Lincoln, with little support in solidly Democratic Egypt, knew what he was up against. "I hope you won't make fun of the few friends I have here," he said in opening his remarks. "That is all I ask."

John Gardner, a 65-year-old former county highway technician, has been Jonesboro's mayor for 12 years. He acknowledges that interest in the debate has been "sporadic," but is determined to see that Jonesboro puts on a good show, both for its own citizens and the nationwide television audience. He's even dug up a banner sent to the town 19 years ago by the producer of a television play about the debates, titled "The Rivalry."

The debate site, a small, tree-lined park about a half-mile from the town square, is certainly the quietest of the seven. The U.S. Forest Service, which administers the park, has just installed a concrete walkway and handicapped access ramp leading to the commemorative boulder.

Such modern amenities might seem a bit jarring alongside the split-rail fences that border the property, but they make the site far more accessible to the modern visitor -- helping ensure interest in the debates will continue even after C-Span leaves town.


I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the Negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white people.

Abraham Lincoln

Sept. 18, 1858

No one involved with the six other debate cities envies Charleston. The Lincoln who spoke there hardly reflects the Great Emancipator enshrined in our history.

"What's toughest I think are Lincoln's words on the subject of racial equality," says Ted Hippely, who will direct the re-enactment at Galesburg, the fifth city. "I've been reading some of the Charleston debates, and the things he said about blacks and racial equality there are going to go down awful hard. I don't know what they're going to do in Charleston. They've got to say it, you know."

Local historian Nancy Easter Shick, 53, knows that Lincoln's words sound jarring to modern ears. And while she doesn't excuse them, she does urge that they be placed in the context of his audience. His parents owned a farm about eight miles to the south. Lincoln knew these people well.

" 'Abolitionist,' that was not a good word at the time in Charleston," she says. "Lincoln, having the ties [here], knew who he was speaking to. That's why his words are not exactly the Great Emancipator's words. But I also think Lincoln evolved."

B. F. McClerren, 65, a retired professor at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, will be standing in for Lincoln here. He, too, realizes Lincoln's words at Charleston do not fit the traditional image. But, he says, revisionists should tread carefully.

"There was one thing he never swerved on," he says. "He never swerved on the point that the black man was a human being. Those who advocated slavery [contended] that the black man is only property, like horses and cattle, and actually is not a human being."

Controversy or no, one woman sure to be at the Coles County fairground for the re-enactment is Lee Newhouse, whose great-grandmother attended the original debate -- on the same spot -- and left behind a legacy her descendants still treasure.

Annie Mahon Branson often told her great-granddaughter the story of how her parents packed for the two-day wagon trip to Charleston -- ending up at a fairground where she saw "two men up on a platform arguing.

"There was a tall thin man and there was a short fat man," Mrs. Newhouse says, recalling her great-grandmother's words. "At first one of them would argue, then the other would argue. And this went on all day.

("Actually, I think it was three hours," Mrs. Newhouse notes. "But to a 4-year-old, it was all day.")

"When they were all done arguing, everybody shouted and cheered and threw their hats up in the air. And she threw her handkerchief up in the air and it landed on the platform. And the tall, thin man picked it up and gave it back to her."

Mrs. Newhouse still has the handkerchief.


I have proved that he has different sets of principles for each locality.

Stephen A. Douglas

Oct. 7, 1858

As a young boy growing up in Galesburg, Carl Sandburg would often cut through the Knox College campus on his way to various odd jobs. And he often paused at the fifth debate site, on the east side of the campus' Old Main building, and reflect on the words Abraham Lincoln had said there.

For it was at Galesburg, most historians agree, that Lincoln started for the moral high ground -- arguing not so much about semantics and laws and what was permitted under the Constitution, but insisting simply that slavery was wrong.

Galesburg is probably more responsible for the reputation of Abraham Lincoln than any other of the seven cities, for young Carl grew up to be one of the world's foremosts poets and authors. And his three-volume biography of Lincoln, one of the most admired works of its time, would win the Pulitzer Prize.

And because the debate was held on a college campus, alongside a building that still stands, Galesburg will be able to most closely re-create what people saw in 1858. Old Main is the only remaining structure that was used during the debates. Large bronze plaques on both sides of the east-side door bear likenesses of the two debaters.

"From a physical surroundings standpoint, we're going to be so historically accurate that it's going to be scary," says Mayor Fred Kimble, 45.


We, the Republican party, think [slavery] is wrong. We think it is a moral, a social, and a political wrong.

Abraham Lincoln

Oct. 13, 1858

Joseph Conover, editor of the Quincy Herald-Whig, stands at his desk, opens a bound volume of the Quincy Whig and Republican from 1858 and turns to the editions reporting the town's debate.

"Lincoln Gets Douglas DOWN!" blares a headline in the Whig of Oct. 15. The paper was engaged in a tumultuous war of words with the Quincy Daily Herald. Such was newspapering in the 1850s. Most towns of any size had two newspapers, one fiercely Republican, one just as unbendingly Democratic.

Debate fever has quieted down in Quincy since then. "It's not something the community has paid much attention to," Mr. Conover says.

Adams Park, four blocks east of the waterfront, played host to the 1858 debate. A memorial tablet, depicting a seated Douglas staring at the ground while Lincoln speaks, marks the site (area children have been rubbing Douglas' protruding shoe for years, believing it will bring them luck -- and leaving it much shinier than the rest of the panel).

But no historical marker sits on the square to explain what happened -- a distinction Quincy and Alton, the two sites on the Mississippi, share. Little has been done over the years to commemorate the verbal battle that raged here.

Mayor Charles W. Scholz, 40, plans to change that. He hopes the excitement being generated in Quincy will translate into some sort of interpretive center that would explain not only the debates, but also the town's status as one of the few documented stops on the Underground Railroad.

That would be fine with Jack Ingram, a lawyer who will portray Lincoln here. The Quincy native didn't know much about Lincoln going in, but has come away impressed.

"Man, he was something else," says Mr. Ingram, 48. "He was a very private person, with incredible integrity and honesty, incredible respect for God. He sought truth and really didn't waver from that."


We [in Illinois] now adopt the policy that in this state a Negro shall not be a slave, nor shall he be a citizen . . . For my part, I think it is a wise and sound policy for us."

Stephen A. Douglas

Oct. 15, 1858

Andrea Jackson, 45, is a native of Alton. But until today, she'd never visited the monument to the town's most famous citizen -- Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist newspaper editor who was killed by a mob in 1837 while trying to protect his presses.

Growing up in Alton's sizable black community, Ms. Jackson heard plenty about Elijah Lovejoy, whom she long assumed was black. But it wasn't until after she'd earned her master's degree in educational theater, moved away to New York, then moved back to Illinois two months ago that she visited the soaring memorial to Lovejoy's memory.

Still, she takes no pride in what happened in her hometown. "I'm appalled by what happened," she says, "and thinking, 'Who are the descendants of the people who did this abominable deed? Who killed this freedom fighter?' "

Asked about Lincoln, she pauses a moment. "I'm ambivalent about Abraham Lincoln," she says, weighing her words carefully. "I don't believe he was a fighter for Africans or slaves."

Even though it is more closely associated than any of the other six cities with the spirit of emancipation that has come -- rightly or wrongly -- to symbolize Lincoln, Alton has done little to preserve the memory of the debates that ended here on a cold autumn day in October 1858. Until just a few weeks ago, the debate site was simply a parking lot with a marker off to the side.

But things are changing. The parking lot has been ripped up and construction crews have begun turning the site back into a park (they promise work will be finished before the scheduled re-enactment).

The town has raised more than $180,000 through the sale of commemorative bricks that will be placed in the park, each engraved with its donor's name.

"I think that this event will have sparked a lasting interest in the Lincoln-Douglas debates," says project coordinator Mark Bacus, 37. "I hope that it will become a trigger to remind the community and will become part of the history of Alton."


Unless Congress is in session, as it will be today, all the Lincoln-Douglas debates will be broadcast on C-Span from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the day of the re-enactment. Two 90-minute shows, aimed at putting the events of 1858 into historical context, will surround each three-hour debate.

Ottawa, today, (the debate will be carried live on C-Span 2; C-Span will air a taped broadcast from 2 a.m.-8 a.m. tomorrow and 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Wednesday); Freeport, Aug. 27; Jonesboro, Sept. 17; Charleston, Sept. 18; Galesburg, Oct. 8; Quincy, Oct. 9; Alton, Oct. 15.

C-Span 2 will re-broadcast the debates in six-hour segments, Nov. 6 through Dec. 18.

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