I am working on a book about how Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas set aside their rivalry to work together against the Confederacy. As part of my research, I have traveled the length and breadth of Illinois (mostly the length), to visit every Lincoln-Douglas Debate site. It’s been an inspiring journey. These seven small towns — none with a population of more than 40,000 — all played a significant role in American history, if only for a day. The debate is still the biggest thing that’s ever happened in most of them, and remains a centerpiece of their identities.
Although Lincoln lost the Senate election, the debates set him up to win the Republican nomination for president in 1860. Douglas was the most famous, most controversial senator of the 1850s, author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened up the territories to slavery — anathema to the newly-formed Republican Party, which wanted slavery confined to the states where it then existed. Unlike the other Republican candidates for president, Lincoln had the opportunity to confront Douglas about Kansas-Nebraska in his home state. The debates were reprinted in newspapers, making Lincoln a national figure. The 1858 Illinois Senate race remains the most significant congressional election ever.
There was a debate in each congressional district, but Chicago and Springfield were left out, because both candidates had already spoken there. On July 9, 1858, Douglas returned home from Washington and made a speech from the balcony of Tremont House, a hotel at Lake and Dearborn. Lincoln spoke there the next night to a smaller crowd. (Lincoln agreed to the debates because the state Republican committee told him he was making himself look foolish by chasing Douglas around the state, trying to draft off his fame.)
Herewith, then, is a ranking of all seven Lincoln-Douglas debate sites, based on how well each town honors the event’s legacy — and how interesting it is to visit.
- GALESBURG: Galesburg gets the top spot because it’s the only town that has preserved a building where a debate took place: Old Main at Knox College. Supposedly, Lincoln — who had only a few years of schooling — stepped through a window of Old Main to reach the debate platform and cracked that he had “finally been through college.” Inside the building is a display explaining that Galesburg, like most of northern Illinois, was Lincoln Country, and responded well to the challenger’s argument that Douglas’s denial that “the negro…had no share in the Declaration of Independence” was “preparing the public mind…for making slavery perpetual and national.” Knox College was founded by Presbyterian and Congregationalist settlers from Upstate New York, who admitted Black students and established a stop on the Underground Railroad, giving the town the nickname “Abolition City.”
- CHARLESTON: Lincoln and Douglas debated at the Coles County Fairgrounds, just outside of town. Today, statues of the contestants stand there, as well as a museum, where visitors can watch a video about the debate introduced by former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Charleston native whose great-grandfather was in attendance. According to the museum’s exhibit, Sarah Bush Lincoln, Lincoln’s widowed stepmother, was also at the debate: She lived on a farm nearby. This was the worst debate. The candidates mostly argued about a congressional bill regarding the admission of Kansas as a state. A defensive Lincoln began his speech by declaring “I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Charleston is, today, the most happening of the Lincoln-Douglas debate towns because it’s the home of Eastern Illinois University, which has 8,500 students — and a dormitory named after each candidate.
- QUINCY: Lincoln and Douglas debated in Washington Park, on the town square, where today there is a bas-relief depicting the event by famed Illinois sculptor Lorado Taft, who also designed the Fountain of Time on the Midway Plaisance. (Taft attended the dedication a week before he died in 1936.) Across the street is a storefront museum, which describes the event as “the nastiest of the debates.” Douglas attacked Lincoln for asserting that the nation could not continue to exist half slave or half free (true); Lincoln attacked Douglas for not believing slavery was “right or wrong” (also true). Quincy is not as prosperous as it was in the steamboat days, but those riverfront traders left behind some of the most fabulous homes in the state, built in the Federal, Romanesque, and Greek Revival styles. There’s also the riverfront Villa Kathrine, a pseudo-Moorish castle.
- JONESBORO: On Debate Day 1858, only about 1,500 people turned out to listen to Lincoln and Douglas in Jonesboro. It remains by far the smallest site, with a population of 1,800. Southern Illinois, wettled from the slave states of Kentucky and Tennessee, was sympathetic to Douglas. The senator had promised Lincoln to “trot him down to Egypt” to see if he would repeat his anti-slavery principles there. (Lincoln did.) While the monument consists only of two statues — and the Douglas statue doesn’t look much like Douglas — it is in the Shawnee National Forest, in the Illinois Ozarks, which has the most dramatic scenery in our mostly flat, corn- and bean-covered state.
- FREEPORT: The most significant debate took place in Freeport, where Lincoln maneuvered Douglas into espousing his “Freeport Doctrine,” which held that, despite the Dred Scott Decision, slavery could only exist in the territories if the legislature passed “police regulations” to protect it. This enraged Southern Democrats, who wanted federal legislation to guarantee the right to bring slaves into the territories. They would walk out of the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston rather than accept Douglas’s nomination, dooming his presidential chances. Freeport has a small park, with a pair of well-rendered statues depicting Lincoln sitting and listening to Douglas, who is gesturing forcefully with his index finger. Perhaps he was regaling his listeners with an anecdote about seeing “Fred Douglass” riding in a carriage with a white woman — where this “Black Republican” equality stuff was leading. Freeport also honors the candidates with the Lindo Theatre, whose name is a portmanteau of Lincoln and Douglas.
- OTTAWA: The first debate took place in Ottawa, which was in the congressional district represented by Owen Lovejoy, brother of Elijah Lovejoy, the abolitionist printer lynched by a mob in Alton in 1837. So the 15,000 locals who turned out to hear the candidates were mostly for Lincoln. Douglas defended his doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” which allowed each state and territory to make its own rules on slavery. If Maine wanted to allow Blacks to vote, that was Maine’s business, but he asked his listeners, “Do you desire to strike out of our state that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the state, and allow the free negroes to flow in, and cover the state with black settlements?” Ottawa does have an arresting monument: a pair of statues standing on a block in the middle of a fountain, in the park where the debate took place.
- ALTON: The site of the last debate gets last place. The Alton debate took place next to City Hall, a noble riverfront structure surmounted by a cupola. Unfortunately, that building burned down in the 1920s. Today, the visitor to Lincoln-Douglas Square sees a grain elevator to the west, and to the south, the Argosy Casino. Lincoln wound up his argument to the voters by contending that the Dred Scott Decision would lead to slaveholders being allowed to take their property into free states. Douglas argued that Republican principles would lead to “a war against the Southern states and their institutions until you force them to abolish slavery everywhere.” Alton is a faded river town (which is why it got a casino), but go a few blocks inland, and you’ll find a statue of native son Miles Davis, along with the declaration that Alton is the “Birthplace of Cool.”