Turning Points in the Galesburg Debate

Article excerpt

By the time Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated in Galesburg, their campaign for the U.S. Senate already had been underway for nearly four months. That was highly unusual, since U.S. Senators were chosen by the state legislature, which itself would not be elected until November. But the Republicans, fearful that their supporters might defect to Douglas after he had broken with President James Buchanan over the Lecompton constitution, or perhaps even fearful that Douglas might become a Republican, resolved at their state convention on June 16 that Lincoln was their "first and only choice" for the Senate seat. Congress was still in session at the time, so Douglas did not return to Illinois until July 9, when he effectively opened his campaign with a speech in Chicago attacking the "house divided" doctrine Lincoln had promulgated at the Republican convention. From then until Election Day, Illinoisans would be treated to speeches, parades, broadsides, and rallies in support of each candidate.

Douglas was by far the better known, so Lincoln did what underdogs often do. He trailed the front-runner, announcing to the assembled crowds after Douglas had spoken that if they would return after dinner, or perhaps the next day, he would be happy to share his views on the issues of the day. This tactic invited ridicule, including the suggestion that if Lincoln really wanted to attract crowds, he could join one of the "circuses and menageries" making its way across the state. (1) Hoping to change the momentum of the campaign, Lincoln waited until Douglas had announced his schedule of speaking appearances and then challenged the incumbent to a series of approximately 50 debates. Douglas had no great desire to debate, but the norm of the old frontier still was potent: if you were challenged to a debate and you refused, that was a sign that you were not up to the demands of the office. (2) So Douglas offered a counterproposal: seven debates, one in each Congressional district save Chicago and Springfield, where both men had already spoken. Douglas selected dates and places for the encounters to minimize the disruption of his own schedule. After some quibbling about the details, Lincoln agreed to Douglas's proposal.


Two debates had taken place in August and two in September. In order, they were held at Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, and Charleston. Douglas opened at Ottawa, alleging that Lincoln was part of a plot to convert both Whig and Democratic parties to abolitionism and citing as evidence what he claimed was the 1854 platform of the state Republican party. He then propounded to Lincoln a series of questions seeking to tie him to this platform. Moreover, he suggested that the "house divided" doctrine was at odds with the views of the founding fathers. Lincoln's strategy was not so well formed. He denied that he was engaged in an abolition conspiracy and, to prove what his views in 1854 really were, he spent a long time reading an excerpt from the speech he delivered at Peoria in that year. He moved from topic to topic without apparent plan, he ended his speech with 15 minutes remaining, and for the most part he avoided answering Douglas's questions, saying that he would not recognize Douglas's right to "catechize" him unless he could pose a similar number of questions in turn. It seemed almost as if he was unnerved by the prospect of confronting the incumbent face-to-face. Although his partisans in the press and elsewhere claimed that he had vanquished the Little Giant, Lincoln was advised by party leaders to step up the tempo of the attack in the second debate, at Freeport. (3)

That is exactly what Lincoln did. He dispatched Douglas's queries with yes-or-no answers, responding exactly to the question, usually about whether he was "pledged" to some particular statement that Douglas read from the purported Republican state platform. He followed with brief elaboration of some of his answers. …


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