“THE PRAIRIES ARE ON FIRE,” reported a New York newspaper in 1858, gazing west to take the temperature of the most heated election contest in the nation.1
In the summer of that turbulent year, as America slid perilously closer to the brink of disunion, two Illinois politicians seized center stage and held the national spotlight for two extraordinary months. Through the sheer force of their words, personalities, and ideas—not to mention the exuberance of their supporters—they transformed a statewide contest for the U.S. Senate into a watershed national disquisition on the contentious issue of slavery. They attracted tens of thousands of voters to their appearances, and newspaper reprints of their speeches became required reading for hundreds of thousands more. However imperfect that written record was—and its defects are the reason for this book— its immediate influence proved genuine and widespread. The eyes and ears of the entire nation turned to Illinois as the war of words intensified. It was the season of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.