Lincoln in Galesburg, 150 Years Ago


by Terry Hogan

the Galesburg Zephyr


It was 150 years ago, this coming October 7th that Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met on the east side of Old Main at Knox College. It had rained the day and night before. A cold northwest wind howled across the Knox Campus. The purpose was to debate one another. It wasn’t for a presidential campaign. It was for the U.S. Senate. The debate began at 2:30 in this prairie town. Lincoln failed to win the Senate seat. But for Lincoln, it was a mighty step toward the presidency in 1860. Probably Lincoln was aware of that in 1858. Lincoln was, after all, a politician with ambition. Perhaps he had no less ambition than his wife had for him.


The Lincoln and Douglas Debates are a significant part of American history for a number of reasons. The debates helped propel Lincoln on to the national stage. The debates helped to give him the aurora of the best viable option for northern abolitionists. The debates also were a warning to the South of what was likely to come once Lincoln took up residence in the White House.


Lincoln was also the beneficiary of a relatively new technology that allowed for the debates to develop a national following – both in the North and the South.  It was the telegraph. The debates were recorded by scribbled handwritten notes which were then sent off to newspaper offices in the major American cities of the day. The articles that appeared sometimes reflected as much of the political viewpoint of the newspaper as of the alleged speaker of the words. Even allowing for a degree of “spin”, the words spoke in Illinois in 1858 caught national attention. The debates were the preamble of the worst war that America ever fought.


Galesburg was the fifth of seven debate sites for Lincoln and Douglas. The debates were primarily focused on the future of slavery and how slavery should be treated in the great western land masses that would become states. Should they be free states as advocated by abolitionists? Should they be slave states? Should some sort of free/slave allocation system be established? Should the choice be left to the residents of the territory when it becomes a state? The debates also touched on the underlying issue of how freed Negros should be viewed. Should they be allowed to vote? Should they be allowed full citizenship? Should they be allowed to intermarry with “whites” (prohibited by law at the time)?


Most know that Lincoln was in favor of the demise of slavery. Douglas was not pro-slavery as much as he was for self-determination by the newly formed states. He was, at least in the debates, an advocate of allowing the states to make the determination. He felt the federal government should not intrude into what he saw as a state’s right. He also was well aware of the strain on the nation that would be imposed if the institution of slavery was directly attacked. Lincoln took the position that the nation could not survive half slavery and half free. Thus the famous “house-divided” position was born.


The Galesburg debate drew the largest crowd of the road show debates. Galesburg was strongly anti-slavery. Lincoln found Galesburg to be a friendly forum. But that is not to say that Douglas didn’t have a strong following in the area, as well.


At the Galesburg debate, Douglas accused Lincoln of adjusting his position on blacks (“negroes”), depending on where the debate was, and what the audience wanted to hear. Given that Lincoln was an astute politician, there is probably more than a little truth to that.


However, America needs heroes and Lincoln was one, or became one, with his death. His loss in 1858 became his win in 1860. This victory, in turn, cost him his life. Sometimes a place in history comes at a high cost.


Lincoln’s presidency and the slavery issue were at the roots of the Civil War. The impact of the American Civil War cannot be over-stated. It destroyed the economy and infrastructure of the South. It strained, and at times broke, or at least cracked, the Constitution of the United States. Lincoln ignored the Supreme Court.  The war greatly strengthened the federal government, at the cost of state’s rights. The war also greatly increased the power of the executive branch, at the cost of the legislative and judicial branches. This executive branch imbalance can be seen yet today.


Over the years, Lincoln has grown in stature to become the president who sought full equality for the Negro. I concede that he and the country paid a great price to free the slaves. I also concede that Lincoln saw great inequity in the institution of slavery and felt morally bound to end it.


However, if we are to take Lincoln at his own words, and there is some risk at doing that for a politician running for office, Lincoln could be “found wanting” and even racist by contemporary standards.


Lincoln is attributed to have said the following at Charleston, Illinois on September 18, 1858:

 I will say then, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the free negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white people. I will say in addition, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which, I suppose, will forever forbid the two races living together upon terms of social and political equality, and inasmuch as they cannot so live, that while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, that I as much as any other white man am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man. (Angle, 1958, page 292 – Douglas quoting Lincoln’s Charleston speech at Galesburg debate; Angle, 1958, page 235, wording attributed to Lincoln’s opening address at Charleston debate).


Such an expression today by a political candidate would without doubt, rightfully bring charges of racism. In 1858, the words were proclaimed by one who would become known as the great emancipator.


As I write this, we have our first serious black contender for president. Perhaps ironically, he is a U.S. Senator from Illinois. This was the seat that Lincoln was not able to win as an outcome of the 1858 debates. Perhaps Senator Obama will succeed or fail based on his abilities and not because of or despite of his color. At the end of the day, only the voters will know their motivation for voting for or against Obama.


If we are lucky, within another 150 years, nobody will even feel obliged to consider this. Let us hope that we become smart enough to vote for the best candidate and not merely for one who most physically resembles ourselves.


The Lincoln and Douglas Debates held 150 years ago played a significant step in changing America and the very nature of the state-federal government relationship. On a cold windy day in October, Galesburg helped shape history.



Angle, P. 1958. Created Equal? The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. University of Chicago Press.