C-Span, Illinois re-enact Lincoln-Douglas debates History in the Re-making

August 20, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

Freeport, Ill. -- A rental car pulls up to the large boulder sitting in a park off Douglas Street. A young, blond girl bounds out and does to the boulder what, undoubtedly, most of her peers would do.

She climbs on it, little caring that it marks the site of one of the most talked-about debates in American history.

In 1858, Freeport and six other Illinois cities were visited by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, two men locked in a senatorial contest that, for much of the nation, was crystallizing the two issues then dominating the American consciousness: slavery and states' rights. Douglas would go on to win the contest, but the national attention garnered by Lincoln would serve him well when he ran for president two years later.

Beginning today and continuing for two months, C-Span, the cable channel known for its gavel-to-gavel congressional coverage, will do its best to make Americans more aware of the series of debates that one historian wrote is "vastly more admired than known."

From each of the seven debate cities, on a Saturday or Sunday as close to the original date as possible, C-Span will broadcast six hours of live television -- including re-enactments of the three-hour debates.

Spurred on by its own 15th anniversary, C-Span officials approached the mayors of all seven cities last year. Re-create your debates, they said, using local talent and local money, and we'll come in and broadcast them, as though we'd been there in 1858.

All seven mayors agreed, the state of Illinois chipped in $20,000 for each site and C-Span spent $300,000 to $500,000 promoting the debates, providing staff people to coordinate the coverage and putting together educational materials. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were on their way back to center stage.

In most cases, this will be the first time the debates have been restaged in their entirety. Although there have been dozens of re-enactments over the past 136 years, most have used only snippets of the original three-hour events.

"I think it's tremendous," says Bernard Lock, chairman of the historic preservation commission for Ottawa, site of the first debate. "C-Span's involvement should help clarify what the debates really were."

Between Aug. 21 and Oct. 15, 1858, the two men debated seven times -- Lincoln had wanted 50 to 100 debates, but Douglas agreed to seven, one in each of the state's congressional districts where they hadn't already spoken together. (Although they hadn't actually debated, they had spoken within a day of each other in Chicago and Springfield.) Crowds estimated as high as 20,000 people listened as the two men spoke on the issues of the day. One man would speak for an hour, then the other would speak for 90 minutes, then the first man would have 30 minutes for a rejoinder.

Among the first events where reporters used shorthand to transcribe what was said, the debates often centered on charges and counter-charges by both men, sometimes regarding points that must have seemed trivial even then. And the transcripts deflate some myths: neither was Douglas as virulently pro-slavery as some would believe, nor was Lincoln much like the Great Emancipator of popular legend.

But they also reveal much about the political growth of Lincoln -- a man who started in Ottawa by attempting to downplay his opposition to slavery, and ended in Alton by blasting it as a moral wrong.

Ottawa

I hold that each and every state of this Union is a sovereign power, with the right to do as it pleases on this question of slavery.

Stephen A. Douglas

Aug. 21, 1858

As a Lincoln presenter for eight years, Max Daniels, 55, belongs to a society of men who perform as Lincoln, but don't like being called impersonators. Recently laid off from his bank maintenance supervisor's job, he and his wife, Donna, are planning to work full-time portraying Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.

Sitting on a park bench in Ottawa's Washington Square, just a few yards from a boulder marking the site of the 1858 debate, he certainly looks the part -- tall, thin, with a jet black beard and a face that's hauntingly familiar.

Familiar, that is, as Lincoln the President. But Lincoln the Debater was clean-shaven.

"We discussed asking him to shave it off, but we just wouldn't do that," says Sandra Burns, co-chair of the Ottawa debate organizing committee.

After all, she adds, it's Lincoln the President most people want to see anyway.

Reliving history is old hat for this city at the confluence of the Fox and Illinois rivers. Ottawa has been re-staging its debate annually for three years, so the folks here know all about bringing the mid-19th century to life. Officials even sponsor a symposium that attracts historians from throughout the country (this year's topic: "The Anti-Lincoln Tradition").

For Mayor Forrest Buck, 63, the re-creations play nicely into his three-pronged plan to bring more tourism to his city -- an effort spurred by $80,000 a year in hotel and motel taxes earmarked for that specific purpose.

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