Abraham Lincoln gestures toward his listeners while a diminutive Stephen Douglas looms behind with a menacing grimace.

A bronze sculpture captures that scene inside Washington Square Park in Ottawa, Illinois, a popular destination for day trippers looking for hiking trails, cool shops and trendy eateries southwest of Chicagoland. One-hundred and 62 years ago, the real-life Lincoln and Douglas stood on a platform arguing a topic that would alter America’s future forever.

Mark Bennett: In debates of 1858, Lincoln leaned on core of American democracy

Tribune-Star/Mark BennettIt happened here: The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 are considered to be a pivotal moment in the shaping of American politics. The first of those seven debates unfolded in downtown Ottawa, Illinois. This plaque beside the walkway in Washington Square Park explains that moment on Aug. 21, 1858.

The first of the famed seven Lincoln-Douglas debates unfolded in Ottawa’s downtown park on Aug. 21, 1858. My wife and I visited that quiet, powerful historic site last weekend.

It’s doubtful any recent 21st-century debates — especially the chaotic Donald Trump-Joe Biden interruption-fest in Cleveland last month  — will be memorialized in statues.

Nor will their upcoming matchup, scheduled for next Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee. That one could be consequential, if both candidates abide by the format. Still, this year’s presidential debates, and others before and after, fall short of Lincoln’s tangles with Douglas.

Abe, the Republican, was challenging Douglas, the incumbent Democrat, to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. Their series of debates — from August through October of 1858 — foreshadowed the presidential race two years later. Douglas wound up winning the Senate seat in 1858, but the notoriety Lincoln gained in the debates helped him beat Douglas for the presidency in 1860.

“Lincoln would have never become president if he hadn’t stood up to the most famous politician of his day, and that was his opponent, Stephen Douglas,” said Douglas Wilson, a renowned Lincoln scholar, author and professor emeritus at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.

The debates caught the nation’s interest largely because of their theme. They hinged on a single sentence in the Declaration of Independence, signed by the Founding Fathers just 82 years earlier, and its relevance to the heinous practice of enslaving Black people. It reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Mark Bennett: In debates of 1858, Lincoln leaned on core of American democracy

Captured in bronze: Statues inside Washington Square Park in downtown Ottawa, Illinois., depict Abraham Lincoln (foreground) and Stephen Douglas in their first debate of the 1858 campaign for an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate. Tribune-Star/Mark Bennett

Lincoln argued that Douglas’ support of “popular sovereignty” — a policy allowing each state to decide whether to accept or outlaw slavery — was an immoral, catastrophic effort to spread the practice across the nation. Douglas branded Lincoln a “radical,” and Douglas used white supremacist thinking to rationalize slavery.

And, Douglas hammered Lincoln over Abe’s now iconic “house divided” speech.

Imagine that, one candidate digs up the past words of the other and uses them as a debate weapon.

Yet, Lincoln’s then-controversial comments seem eloquently right today.

Earlier in 1858, he spoke about the polarizing impact of slavery on the nation. “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”

It shocked many, seemingly hinting at civil war. Lincoln proved correct, of course. In the meantime, Lincoln’s words became the central focus of his debates with Douglas in that tumultuous pre-Civil War era.

Douglas, a savvy, skilled public speaker put Lincoln — an ousted one-term congressman, but an equally clever politician — on the defensive over Abe’s “house divided” remarks. More than 10,000 people flowed in to witness their first debate in Ottawa, nearly doubling the town’s population on that hot August afternoon, according to the Washington Square Park’s historical account.

Each man spoke for 90 minutes.

90 minutes.

The tall, lanky 49-year-old Lincoln and the short, stocky 45-year-old Douglas had their own camps of supporters in the crowd. Douglas elicited the desired responses from the onlookers, especially with each mention of Lincoln’s “radical” ideas. Douglas’ tactics led to his victory in that Senate race, but eventually spelled his defeat in the presidential election two years later.

Lincoln understood exactly what was happening.

“He was exposing Douglas’ favorite policy,” Wilson said in a phone interview Wednesday. Lincoln, he added, “was a really shrewd politician. We can see that in his presidency.” Wilson knows. Among his books, he co-authored 2008’s “The Lincoln Douglas Debates” and wrote “The Presidency and the Power of Words” in 2006.

Painful, bloody years were ahead, of course. Civil war broke out in 1861, barely a month after Lincoln went from being an Illinois lawyer who’d lost his last two attempts at elected office to president of the United States. It ended five days before a Southern slavery sympathizer shot Lincoln to death in 1865. The toll of military and civilian deaths is estimated at nearly 1 million. An estimated 3.9 million Black people were freed from enslavement by Lincoln’s efforts.

The crowds of thousands who heard the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates around Illinois in 1858 got a taste of not only the perilous injustice gripping the country, but also of the wisdom of their future president.

“He stood up for the Declaration of Independence in a decade when it was losing its force,” Wilson explained. 

That may be hard to believe in 2020. Some Americans in 1858 were born before the Jefferson, Franklin and the others signed the Declaration. So, it was relatively recent and less revered in some places. Southern states looked on the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” language with derision. American’s democracy “experiment” faced internal ridicule.

Lincoln leaned on the Declaration.

“His interpretation of it prevailed,” Wilson said. “He gave it new energy and purpose and gave it new, inspired meaning.”

Whoever fills Lincoln’s former office should do the same.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

Recommended for you