The Debates Remembered: The Case of Galesburg
Davis, Rodney O., Argumentation and Advocacy
Students of commemoration agree that local celebrations have an integrative purpose; that they are intended to reinforce shared values and to reaffirm communal bonds and community identity. The citizens involved in such celebrations are said to desire thus to highlight and reinforce a public identity that enables them to distinguish themselves from others and to socialize the members of society. (1) In Galesburg, Illinois, a town which just before the Civil War had been called "the chief seat of the abolitionists in this state," (2) the Lincoln-Douglas Debate that was conducted there on October 7, 1858, was commemorated on that debate's anniversary three times over the twelve-year period between 1896 and 1908. But what may have started out to be a community celebration of a significant event in the town's history acquired a local partisan political agenda, one whose integrative character was questionable at best, and which was visible and audible in all three cases. However as sentiments spawned by the Civil War calmed after the turn of the 20th Century, the partisan drumbeat was more muffled at the end of this period than it was at the beginning. And we should note that though he was present at none of the celebrations, the influence of William Jennings Bryan was conspicuously felt at each one of them.
The project of celebrating the Galesburg Debate in 1896 seems to have originated with the young president of Knox College, John Huston Finley, and with one of the college's most enthusiastic alumni boosters, Samuel S. McClure, whose new magazine was already beginning to invent the field of investigative journalism. McClure felt that the Lincoln biography recently serialized by John Hay and John Nicolay in the Century Magazine had barely scratched the surface of its subject and was insufficiently personal; besides which it was inaccessible to many readers who couldn't afford the Century's 35 cent price. McClure thought that his ten-cent magazine could do better with Lincoln in the larger market that his price created, hence he set Ida Tarbell to work in 1894 gathering new Lincoln reminiscences and producing the installments of McClure's Magazine's own Lincoln series. The Tarbell series was the great success that McClure had thought it would be, and eventually appeared as a book in two volumes at the turn of the century. When the time came to gather information on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Ms. Tarbell came to Galesburg to do it, and she was put up at the home of John Huston Finley. Coincidentally or not, the chapter on the Debates, with special emphasis on the Galesburg Debate which Ms. Tarbell considered the best of the lot, was published in McClure's in October of 1896, just in time for the Debate's 38th anniversary. (3)
In the mid-1890s, Finley's presidency, though now reckoned one of the most successful in Knox College's history, was constantly fraught with budgetary and fundraising difficulties which Finley hoped to reduce in a campaign to enhance the national reputation of the college. Later known as "one of the greatest showmen in the academic world," (4) he was conscious of the public relations potential of fruitful outpourings of sentiment and tradition that marked academic ceremonies and celebrations. Accordingly he began the annual celebration of the college's Founders Day in 1894, and later the same year he presided over a lavish commemoration of the centennial of the birth of William Cullen Bryant. With McClure's enthusiastic support and the publicity afforded by McClure's Magazine, Finley concluded to pull off the most audacious local celebration yet, the public commemoration of the Galesburg Debate. (5)
It's not clear that the significance of commemorating that debate in a presidential election year, as 1896 was, was at least initially all that apparent to Finley or McClure, but it most certainly was to the third significant promoter of the event, Clark E. Carr. A long-time Knox College trustee, Carr was the most important Republican in Galesburg's Knox County. A mostly behind-the-scenes wire-puller and frequent delegate to Republican conventions, he had been appointed Galesburg postmaster by Abraham Lincoln and served in that capacity until the first Cleveland Administration. He had heard the Galesburg Debate and he was present at Gettysburg, as a member of the committee of arrangements, when Lincoln delivered his famous Address in the fall of 1863. He was of sufficient influence to have persuaded President Benjamin Harrison to lay the cornerstone of Knox's Alumni Hall in 1890, and the same president appointed Carr minister to Denmark later that same year. It was Carr who was able to recruit both the famous Republican orator and railroad president Chauncey Depew and Robert Todd Lincoln as speakers at the Galesburg Debate celebration. Indeed his authority would probably have sufficed to secure William McKinley himself as a speaker, had not that candidate chosen to remain in Canton and address visiting delegations from his front porch. And it was doubtless at Carr's suggestion that Finley, for the sake of at least an illusion of non-partisanship in the celebration, would approach two Democrats to be on the program: former Iowa Governor Horace Boies and John M. Palmer. Boies did not appear but Palmer, who had been friendly with both Lincoln and Douglas and who was completing a long political pilgrimage through both major political parties as the Gold Democrats' 1896 presidential candidate, was to be an honored speaker. Indeed Palmer was given the task of dedicating the plaque commemorating the debate, which was mounted at the north front of Knox College's Old Main. But beyond that non-partisanship would not go. It would not extend, obviously, to William Jennings Bryan that year, or to …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Debates Remembered: The Case of Galesburg. Contributors: Davis, Rodney O. - Author. Journal title: Argumentation and Advocacy. Volume: 46. Issue: 3 Publication date: Winter 2010. Page number: 159+. © 2008 American Forensic Association. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.