Blowing Out the Moral Lights

History is a dangerous thing. It is redefined and rewritten to meet our contemporary views and needs. It is also often portrayed to be a simple cause and effect process, more like a chemical reaction, than a spider web of simultaneous forces evoking a response, perhaps out of all proportion to the triggers. However, once in a while, history acts on an individual and that individual recalls that moment.

In 1892, a young lad of about 14 walked daily across the near southside of Galesburg. At about 6:30 in the morning, he'd leave his home on Berrien Street, walk west across the Q switchyard tracks. He'd continue this familiar path, past Mike O'Connor's livery stable, past the Boyer broom factory, founded by the blind Mr. Boyer, and then off to the Knox College campus. He walked this path daily for 16 months on the way to work. It took him past Old Main; past where the stage had been built for an event in October of 1858. It took him past the bronze marker that recalled the event that occurred some 34 years earlier.

The marker recalls the words spoken to a reported 15,000 to 20,000 people from Galesburg, Knoxville, Abingdon, Wataga, and the farms and other small communities of this prairie land. The words were to echo throughout this young land, and to spread across the prairies as rapidly as a prairie fire.

This Swedish lad, born in Galesburg, not far from the marker, not far from this historical site, stopped to read and remember the words

''He is blowing out the moral lights around us, when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them.''

Charlie, the lad of 14, stopped and read the marker frequently on the way to work, in the spring, with the burst of life, in the heat of the summer, in the rattle of dry leaves of the fall, and the brightness of a fresh winter snow. He read, and he remembered. From these words, he continued to his place of employment, to clean horse stalls, hitch the horse to a wagon, and to begin the day delivering milk. Charlie is the son of a railroad worker, fresh from Sweden. Charlie is a product of the Galesburg environment, working at whatever he can, and associating with the young Swedish and Irish lads that are products of his neighborhood.

Of course, the marker records the famous Lincoln-Douglas debate, held in Galesburg in October of 1858. It was one of seven such debates held in Illinois. One debate was held in each of the state's congressional districts. The others were Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Quincy and Alton.

It was about the U.S. Senate race and it was about the differing views of two men, Stephen A. Douglas, Democratic incumbent, and Abraham Lincoln, his Republican challenger. On the edge of America's civilized frontier, these two men who differed in political philosophy as much as in their physical appearance, helped set the stage for a debate that would in a few years, tear the young nation apart. Lincoln, would, of course, become President, and confront the challenge of the succession of the southern states. But this was yet to come. Of these debates, the New York Evening Post was to publish, ''The prairies are on fire.''

Stephen Douglas was a nationally-recognized Senator; had served two terms; and was a leader of the Democratic Party. On the other hand, Lincoln had served only one term as a Congressman, and had served in the Illinois legislature for about six years prior to that. He was also a member of the new Republican Party. The Republican Party tended to be anti-slavery but supported a wide-range of feelings and positions on the issue.

The format of the debates was set. Each of the debates would last for three hours. One of the two candidates would open the debate with an hour-long speech and would close the debate with a 30-minute rebuttal. The other candidate would have an hour and a half in between to ''make his case.'' To the extent that the speeches could be heard, newspaper reporters would record the statements using shorthand and then transmit their versions by telegraph to their newspapers. Each of the debates drew large crowds to hear and to decide, or to cheer for their candidate.

The first debate took place, northeast of Galesburg, in Ottawa, on August 21, 1858. Crowds gathered, kicking up the dust and the temperature was in the 80s. The debate was fiery, as was all those that would follow, but neither Lincoln nor Douglas represented the extremes of their parties. By contemporary standards, probably both could be considered racists, but such a comparison wouldn't be fair.

It is written that Douglas won the first four debates, held at Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro and Charleston, but that Galesburg was his turning point. On the platform in front of Old Main, under a large banner proclaiming ''Knox College for Lincoln,'' the Galesburg debate was held on a cold October 7, 1858. Lincoln moved away from Douglas and proclaimed, on the basis of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal and are entitled to the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuits of happiness. In the strongly abolitionist Galesburg, it was reported that Lincoln won the day, and was to do so for the remaining two debates in Quincy and Alton.

Of course, Lincoln lost the Senatorial contest and Douglas was returned for a third term. The debate and contest did gain Lincoln a greater national recognition that would prove to be critical in 1860. As President, Lincoln would face the House Divided and the resulting Civil War would test the vary fabric of America. The North would insist that there was but one nation, the South would insist there were two. Long after the war was ended, Jefferson Davis would continue to write about his view of the southern states legal right to withdraw from the federal government.

The war was fought, the federal government was maintained, and the divided house was re-united. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were killed, maimed, or died of disease while fighting the war. A Southern culture was devastated; its economic basis forever changed. Out of this self-destruction, a stronger federal government rose.

Old Main, designed by Swedish architect, Charles Ulrichson, survived to become a historical site. Old Main stood the test of time and remains a visual testament of the debate held so long ago. Old Main provided the opportunity for a marker to be affixed. This marker, was to be read by a Swedish lad, who in later years would become the recognized Lincoln biographer, penning the two-volume Lincoln Prairie Years and the four-volume Lincoln War Years.

Carl Sandburg, in his Always the Young Strangers, wrote:

''At the north front of Old Main many times I read on a bronze plate words spoken by Lincoln and by Douglas some 34 years before I stood there reading those words. They stayed with me, and sometimes I would stop to read those words only, what Lincoln said to twenty thousand people on a cold wind October day: 'He is blowing out the moral lights around us, when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them.' I read them in winter sunrise, in broad summer day-light, in falling snow or rain, in all the weathers of a year.''

A Swedish architect, a debate, a bronze plate, and the shortcut taken by a young Swedish lad on the way to work, would combine forces to produce Galesburg's best known ''son'' -- a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Lincoln biographer.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online November 1, 2000

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