Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Lincoln Douglas Debate


Associated Press Writer

FREEPORT, Ill. (AP) - This is the "Pretzel City," thanks to
German bakers who settled here in the 1850s. It's appropriate,
given the way a lightweight named Abraham Lincoln twisted up a
political colossus here and began cementing his place in American

Lincoln, a longshot candidate for U.S. Senate, debated Stephen
A. Douglas on the edge of the rolling northwestern Illinois hills
150 years ago this month, halting the Little Giant's march to the
White House and opening its door for the Railsplitter from

The "Freeport Doctrine" that Douglas espoused on Aug. 27, 1858
- that states and territories could ban slavery despite a Supreme
Court ruling suggesting otherwise - was not a new idea with
Douglas, who beat Lincoln and returned to Congress.

But Lincoln forced Douglas to record it for a national audience,
solidifying slaveholders' opposition and splitting the Democrats.
Add Lincoln's stellar and unexpected performance in seven matchups
across Illinois that fall, and influential eastern Republicans were
convinced that Lincoln should be their man for president in 1860.

Now, as another U.S. senator from Illinois admired for his
oratorical polish - Barack Obama - shoots for the presidency,
Illinois is marking Lincoln's rise to the national stage with a
sesquicentennial commemoration of the David-and-Goliath showdowns.
The festivities will take Lincoln and Douglas re-enactors to each
debate site starting this month, with storytellers, parades, and
dancin g at period balls.

The debates played a role in "determining who we are as a
people today," said Edward Finch, a retired Freeport schoolteacher
and chairman of "Reunion Tour '08," the statewide celebration.

Freeport certainly has never forgotten. The flavor that topped a
local ice-cream parlor's contest for a commemorative confection?
"Lickin' Douglas."

Slavery was the focus of the debates at Ottawa, Freeport,
Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy and Alton. But underlying
that incendiary theme was the ultimate question of democracy's
purpose - whether it's about majority rule or right and wrong, said
Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College, author of "Lincoln and
Douglas: The Debates that Defined America."

"Americans regard democracy as something more transcendent,
something more sacred than just counting noses," Guelzo said.
"Americans at base want to know that their politics is about what
is right. And if a majority wants to do what is wrong, people just
don't roll over."

Douglas wanted to push permission for slavery out of Congress
and let states decide. To Lincoln, slavery itself was the issue.
Blacks were people, not property.

Lincoln wasn't alone in that belief, but it was radical to give
it a national voice.

"Just that very basic principle of recognizing the humanity of
blacks was huge," Illinois state historian Thomas Schwartz said.

Douglas was legendary for helping fashion the last territorial
compromise between slave and free states in 1850, seizing on the
idea that voters should decide on slavery.

He thought "popular sovereignty" was his White House ticket,
and 1854 legislation he ushered into law applied it to the vast,
unsettled West. To the horror of anti-slavery northerners, it
nullified a 30-year-old deal that kept slavery south of the
Mason-Dixon line.

It also brought Lincoln out o f political retirement. By 1858, he
was the fledgling Illinois Republicans' best hope against Douglas.

The underfunded Lincoln began tailing Douglas, letting the
celebrity draw crowds that he addressed a day later. Douglas
finally agreed to joint appearances in the seven congressional
districts where the two hadn't already given major speeches.

The Little Giant, so called because he stood just 5-foot-4, knew
he'd have his hands full with Lincoln. With news reporters making
verbatim transcripts, ensuring wide publication, Douglas started
strong at Ottawa.

But Honest Abe recovered, refining his moral arguments in later
debates until at Alton, Douglas had no real response, said Rodney
Davis, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College,
site of the fifth debate.

Douglas had no qualms about playing to white supremacists'
fears, using the N-word liberally.

Lincoln wasn't blameless on the subject. Pressured to respond to
the race-baiting, at Charleston he dismissed the idea that blacks
should have civil rights. He said a "physical difference" between
the races precluded their living in equality with whites.

But as president, Lincoln set the stage for constitutional
changes that ended slavery and eventually offered blacks civil

And nearly 150 years later, a black man would announce his run
for presidency in Springfield on the steps of the Capitol where
Lincoln once served. Obama's nomination is "breathtakingly
stupendous," Guelzo said, considering the slow pace of worldwide
change in race relations over the centuries.

Lincoln lost to Douglas when Democrats won control of the
General Assembly, which chose U.S. senators in the 19th Century.
But the debates put Lincoln in contention for the Republican
presidential nomination two years later. Douglas was waiting.

"When they would face off in 1860," said Schwartz, "they had
already had the dress rehearsal."

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