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. …