On the Ground with the Great Debates: Lincoln and Douglas Come to Galesburg

Article excerpt

"Now he belongs to the ages," famously memorialized Secretary of War Edwin Stanton over the just deceased Abraham Lincoln in the back parlor of Petersen's boarding house on April 15, 1865. The prophetic aphorism began the process that took Abraham Lincoln into American memory as one of a small group of national saints. As always in this process, beatification lifted Lincoln from among the conflicts, the complicated connections to others, the mix of character traits that formed the texture of his life. The abstract savior of the nation fogs the sharp vision of complex history. Historians since have struggled to reembody Lincoln in the face of this public iconology.

Public understanding of the Lincoln-Douglas debates has shared in this process. On the one hand, the debates exist most familiarly as a democratic imaginative, a free exchange of ideas attended to by the voters of Illinois, and then by a nation beyond, and through which the nation located its ultimate response to slavery. When presidential campaign debates were created in 1960, the standard against which they entered the public imaginary was this idealized view of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. On the other hand, when historians place the debates of the summer and fall of 1858 into their significance and place in history, it is as part of the greater story of the history of the United States coming to terms with the institution of slavery that soiled its birth and remained its moral cancer. In this iconology, the historical reality of citizens of Illinois gathering in towns throughout Illinois in the summer and fall of 1858 is difficult to foreground.

What David Zarefsky and I strived to do in this special issue was to re-embody the debates from mythic significance into historical artifact. We wanted to put flesh on the bones of the history and show the debates operating in the organs of democratic politics of the 1850s. In providing this perspective, we sought to present the debates as historically situated moments, shaped by the times, and consequential in their immediate texture. Our vehicle for doing this turned out to be a symposium sponsored by the Lincoln Studies Center of Knox College and managed by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis celebrating the 150th anniversary of the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate in Galesburg, Illinois, on October 7, 1858. The symposium provided a panel of important Lincoln scholars with a forum during the sesquicentennial celebration in the fall of 2008. The result was a focused consideration of the Galesburg moment in its own right. We believe that this collection of essays will serve to deepen an appreciation for the debates as significant in more complex ways than seeing them only as an illustration of the country coming to terms with slavery. To be sure, that theme is never far from our narrative, but there are more immediate issues at work in these essays and they provide us a richer texture of the place of the platform celebrations of the Democratic and Republican candidates for the United States Senate in Illinois in 1858.

Allen Guelzo's essay immediately places the debates into the politics of the 1850s. The result is to make the debates a window into the relationship between parties and candidates in Illinois at the time. His argument is that the parties that supported Lincoln and Douglas in Illinois were engaged in intricate, non-choreographed dances of behind-the-scenes political operatives and ordinary citizens. Examining the thesis of Glenn Altshuler and Stuart Blumin that American parties of the 1850s were governed by small cadres of elites, Guelzo applies that thesis to the Senatorial campaign of 1858 and the preparations for the debates. He tells an alternative story of parties with minimal control of their principals, and debates organized not by a small cadre of elites, but by some very ordinary citizens. Certainly the line between performed theater and spontaneous celebrations shifts notably toward the latter although not entirely so. …