What I Did Last Summer: Ed Breen, Vice President of the Friends of the Lincoln Collection, Visits the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Sites

By Ed Breen

Joe Judd sat behind the counter of his used book store at 303 Lincoln Avenue on the west side of Charleston, Illinois,  and talked about what it meant to him and others in town that their town was among the seven communities across the Illinois landscape where the future of the United States of America was argued,  discussed, and disputed 160 years ago this year.

Charleston bookstore owner Joe Judd

“Debate” is the proper term. Judd’s town of Charleston was one of the seven sites, one in each Illinois Congressional District, (except for Chicago and Peoria, where the two had already spoken, one after the other) where the two great political heavyweights of the era—Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas — went toe-to-toe on lawns, platforms, hurriedly-erected stages and a couple of fairgrounds.  These were the “Lincoln-Douglas Debates,” the bedrock arguments on how to correct what a 21st Century observer, Condoleezza Rice, called “America’s birth defect”: Slavery. What John C. Calhoun and others had once called “our peculiar institution.”

Urban mural celebrates local contributions to culture in Charleston

In Charleston, the confrontation between the two U.S. Senate candidates – Douglas the Democrat, Lincoln the fledgling Republican – was on September 18, 1858, midway through a schedule that had begun in Ottawa on August 21st and concluded in Alton, on the banks of the Mississippi River, on October 15.

“Oh, yes, it still means a lot. It’s a part of who we are,” Judd said, “but I don’t know that the young people really understand that. They maybe think it was just two old men.”

Judd, a man in middle age who graduated from Eastern Illinois University, just across the street from his bookstore, worked in Chicago and came back to Charleston (pop. 21,133) to raise his daughters. The town,  like all of the towns  on this particular circuit, is struggling with its economy.  Jobs have departed from Charleston, the student population is about half of three decades ago, partly because the State of Illinois can’t afford to maintain the university as it once was.

“But you know,” Judd said with something resembling Chamber of Commerce pride, “Lincoln’s father and step-mother are both buried here, just a couple of miles from right here. Lincoln came through here after his election on his way to Washington and he stopped to see his step-mother out there in that little cabin. It’s still there.  It would be like today if a President, with all his stuff packed in his car, stopped to see his mother living in a trailer at the edge of town.”

Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln are buried in Shiloh Cemetery just south of Charleston, the seat of Coles County and it was at the Coles County fairgrounds, a few miles to the north,  that the debaters squared off on that Saturday in 1858, the day that local historian Charles Coleman described in his book on Coles County as “the biggest day in the history of Charleston.”

Douglas in Charleston

The site – as with all seven sites—is preserved and revered by the residents. There are Lincoln and Douglas statues, modest, smaller-than- life, and a museum maintained and staffed by volunteers.

Site of platform outside Old Main at Knox College where debate was held

Statuary, the figures of Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas, is found at all sites, except Quincy, where a larger-than-life bronze relief tablet marks the downtown spot and tells the story. Just across the street, of course, is the fine old Lincoln Hotel, now known as the Lincoln Douglas Apartments on Fourth Street.

Freeport, Ottawa, Alton and Quincy each possess central downtown squares where the debates were staged.  Some – Ottawa and Alton, in particular — are lavish: Heroic bronze figures and carefully landscaped surroundings.

“Old Main” at Knox College. Debate platform was built across front

But perhaps most interesting is Galesburg, which makes the most of the convergence of Lincoln and his monumental biographer Carl Sandburg, who was born and reared in Galesburg and attended Knox College, the site of the fifth debate on October 7, 1858.

A platform was hurriedly constructed against the east wall of “Old Main,” the administrative building at the college, which appears pretty much unchanged today.

One problem: The raised platform, necessary if the estimated crowd of 20,000 was to see or hear the speakers, blocked the door leading from the building. Thus did the two politicians crawl through a window adjacent to the door and emerge on the stage.

The window is preserved. So is the red upholstered chair beneath the window which Mr. Lincoln allegedly rested in before climbing to the window.

“Oh, go ahead and sit in it if you’d like,” said Melody Diehl, Student Loans Coordinator for the college, whose office is adjacent to the historic waiting room and window. “We let everybody sit in it. Most of the commencement speakers stop here and sit in the chair. Madeleine Albright did, John Podesta did. Lots of famous people. Go ahead, you won’t break it.”

Halls of “Old Main” are lined with maps, photographs and artifacts, including a bronze Lincoln life mask and a painting depicting the enormous and partisan crowd which had assembled just beyond those doors.

And while there are no life-size statues of Lincoln and Douglas here, there is a larger-than-life rendering of Carl Sandburg at the heart of the downtown square. His childhood home is also an attraction south of downtown and within 100 yards of the once-sprawling and still active Galesburg railroad yards. White frame house, picket fence and a paving brick sidewalk. The house and visitor center are open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Bust of poet and Lincon biographer Carl Sandburg on the grounds of his Galesburg childhood home

Throughout the 420-mile expanse from Freeport, hugging up against adjacent Wisconsin, south to Jonesboro, wedged in at that time only a few miles from the slave-holding states of Kentucky and Missouri, are the remnants of the Illinois frontier. Two-lane blacktop roads link most of the towns. Family farms, both large and small, dot the landscape on both sides of the roads. These communities, by and large, are what remain. Tree-lined streets, architecture too ornate and expensive to be built or maintained today. Courthouse squares and in each of these special places bound together by history, special parks set aside to mark what happened all those years ago.

Jonesboro is the smallest of the towns, population 1,749. Said Lincoln of Douglas on his arrival in Jonesboro:  “Did the Judge talk of trotting me down to Egypt to scare me to death?  . . . ” (Southwestern Illinois has long carried the moniker of “Little Egypt” because the central town of the region is named Cairo).

The Jonesboro appearance, third in the sequence, was the most distant from the Midwestern Illinois frontier— geographically and culturally— and also the most sparsely attended; the crowd was estimated at 1,500. It is also the most rural of the settings. The bronze statues are surrounded by live oak timber, including a massive oak believed to have been there on that September day 160 years ago.

It is surrounded by the Trail of Tears State Forest, a commemoration of the forced removal through the area of the Cherokee Native Americans.

And that is the most abiding of impressions from the seven-town tour:  That the evidence of events past is inescapable across the arc of Illinois from Wisconsin south to the Ohio River.

The Lincoln and Douglas debates, certainly the focus of 1858, were but a slice of the continuum of history across this western frontier of  the Old Northwest Territory,  the huge swath of America created by Ordinance in 1787, territories (and later, states) in which slavery was prohibited by statute.

Detail of Lincon staatue in Jonesboro

In Ottawa, Ryan Prusynski, a teenager, served up fries at McDonalds and talked about his town.

Yes, that date, August 21, still looms large. “We went there on school trips when I was in third grade and again in sixth grade,” he said, motioning in the direction of Washington Park in downtown Ottawa where the debate occurred. Adjacent to the park is a half-block-long urban mural painted in 2007 depicting what went on across the street in the park all those years ago.

“The kids in Ottawa Township High School now go to the park and read aloud the texts from the debates that day,” the young Ottawan said. “But, you know, the thing we talk about more is the radium poisoning, the places that are still contaminated.”

That all began in 1922 when the Radium Dial Company set up shop in a former high school building in Ottawa and hired hundreds of young women to paint wristwatch dials, using radioactive paint that caused the watch dials to glow in the dark. Thus were wearers able for the first time to roll over in bed in the middle of the night, glance at their wristwatches, satisfy their curiosity and go back to sleep.

The result, as we know in a better informed era, was massive radioactive contamination of both people and places in Ottawa. Residents, particularly the young women applying the paint, ingested huge doses of Radium radiation that led to illness and death from anemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw.

200-to-300 year old white oak which no doubt was there the day Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas debated in Jonesboro

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been a constant presence in Ottawa since 1986 and some areas of the community are still uninhabitable.

Thus did the glow of wristwatches overshadow that August day in Ottawa.

This article will continue in the Winter 2018 issue of Lincoln Lore and will be updated here.