In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas faced off in a series of debates throughout Illinois, and the outcome was life-altering for everyone. Learn how Freeport is celebrating Lincoln’s legacy today.
Ever since Africans were brought to these shores as slaves in 1619, this country has agonized over how to deal with the institution of slavery and its aftermath. In the early 19th century, this tension reached a fever pitch in both state and federal governments. As the nation expanded west of the Mississippi, vast territories sought inclusion as states and became the focus of this struggle. Would they enter the Union as slave states or free? Should the federal government, new state governments, or the Supreme Court decide the issue?
Through a series of hard-fought compromises, the government in Washington struggled to avoid an open conflict by maintaining parity among new states. For every slave state that entered, a free state would also be included, keeping a balance between legislators in the Senate.
The 1857 Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court further clouded the issue by ruling that Scott was a slave who could never be a citizen no matter where he lived, and he was not entitled to freedom. The implication to many was that slavery could spread anywhere in the hemisphere. Today, it is widely considered one of the worst decisions ever rendered by the Supreme Court.
This was the atmosphere in which the Lincoln-Douglas debates took place, and the issue to which both candidates focused their attention.
In 1858, Stephen A. Douglas, a nationally prominent Democrat senator from Illinois, was running for re-election to his third term. The new Republican Party, an anti-slavery party formed in Ripon, Wis., in 1854, held a convention in Springfield that summer to nominate Abraham Lincoln as its candidate to oppose Douglas. Until 1913, U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures, so candidates tried hard to win control of the Illinois state legislature for their parties.
Lincoln accepted his party’s nomination on June 16 in the State Capitol in Springfield with a speech that became known as his “House Divided” speech. In it he described a Democratic plot to legalize slavery throughout the Union, and accused Douglas of being its main proponent.
He also implied that the issue might someday be decided by violent means.
Douglas later denied the charges in a speech in Chicago, where he described Lincoln as a dangerous radical abolitionist. The two followed each other around the state for several weeks, often speaking in the same town on the same day.
“Douglas became tired of it,” says George Buss, a Lincoln re-enactor from Freeport [see sidebar]. “Finally, they met on a road between Bement and Monticello – there’s a monument marking where their carriages passed – and Lincoln suggested a series of public debates. Douglas eventually agreed.”
Because Lincoln made the challenge, Douglas set the ground rules. They would debate once in each of the nine congressional districts, but since they had already spoken in Springfield and Chicago on the same days, Douglas would pick the remaining seven locations.
“To guarantee the largest audiences, he chose where railroads crossed, or where there was heavy river traffic,” says Buss.
The sites agreed to were: Ottawa (Aug. 21), Freeport (Aug. 27), Jonesboro (Sept. 16), Charleston (Sept. 18), Galesburg (Oct. 7), Quincy (Oct. 13) and Alton (Oct. 15). The format Douglas demanded, and Lincoln agreed to, was not what we call a debate today. The first candidate would speak for an hour, the other would speak in rebuttal for 1 ½ hours, and then the first would respond to the rebuttal for ½ hour. There was no moderator, no give-and-take as we might expect today.
The style was reminiscent of political stump speeches, so their arguments were peppered with insults, sarcasm and sometimes crude race-baiting remarks. The audiences participated by shouting questions, cheering, laughing and applauding.
Because of Douglas’s political stature, the campaign attracted national attention and many big newspapers sent stenographers to take down every word. Papers in those days were highly partisan publications, so the speeches of the candidate they supported were often edited for “public consumption,” while their opponent’s remarks were left in rough form as delivered.
“Lincoln saved all the newspaper clippings from the campaign in a scrapbook,” says Buss. “He later made it into a book, and had 10,000 copies printed. The Republicans used it in his campaign in 1860.”
On Aug. 27, an estimated crowd of 15,000 to 20,000 people bustled into Freeport, a city of 5,000, for the second debate. Douglas arrived the day before in a private rail car donated by the Illinois Central Railroad. Lincoln arrived in a regular passenger rail car that night and a torchlight parade escorted him to the Brewster House, where both men were staying.
“Freeport was definitely the most pro-Lincoln audience for the debates,” says Buss. “Douglas’s carriage had been smeared with horse excrement, so on the day of the debate, he walked the two blocks to the debate site. He was also struck with watermelon rinds at the steps of the platform.”
Since Douglas had started the previous debate in Ottawa, Freeport was the first location where Lincoln could address questions to Douglas. His second question, which later became known as the Freeport Question, asked whether people in a U.S. territory could prohibit slavery before it became a state.
“Lincoln had been advised not to ask that question, being warned that it would just give Douglas a platform to pitch [his concept of] popular sovereignty again,” says Buss. “But Lincoln replied to the adviser, ‘I’m after bigger fish!’”
Lincoln was trying to force Douglas to choose between the principle of popular sovereignty (sometimes called “squatter sovereignty”), which let U.S. territories choose to allow slavery or not, and the Dred Scott decision, which stated that slavery could not be excluded from such territories.
Douglas’s response, which later became known as the Freeport Doctrine, was that, despite the court’s ruling, slavery could be prevented from any territory by just not enacting laws to support it.
“Douglas never recovered from [his answer],” says Buss. “When he returned to Washington after the election, he was accosted by Jefferson Davis from Mississippi, who said, ‘Here’s the author of the Great Freeport Heresy!’”
In the sixth debate, at Quincy, Lincoln was encouraged by Iowa Gov. James Grimes to “turn up the heat” on Douglas, or Lincoln’s future in politics might be over.
“That’s why they call the Quincy debate the turning point,” says Buss. “Lincoln asked Douglas: ‘You say that a man can work by the sweat of his brow, but not eat the bread of his labor? That, sir, is not democracy!’
“By the time they got to Alton, Douglas had spoken himself hoarse and could only be heard by the stenographers in front,” Buss adds.
In the election, Lincoln’s Republicans won the popular vote by more than 3,400 votes, but the Democrats held on to the majority in the legislature and elected Douglas to his third term, 54 to 46, in January. Due to the wide publicity given the debates, Lincoln gained a reputation throughout the North and was invited to campaign for Republican candidates in other states. Two years later he became the Republican’s 1860 candidate for the presidency.
While Douglas considered his Freeport Doctrine to be a compromise between pro-slavery and anti-slavery positions, Southern Democrats were incensed and demanded its repudiation. This led to a split in the party, one faction nominating Douglas, the other nominating James Breckenridge, who later fought in the Confederate army. The split resulted in Lincoln’s election as the 16th president of the United States. Lincoln’s “bigger fish” had landed.
“Between Lincoln’s election and inauguration, seven states seceded,” says Buss. “All he could do as a private citizen was write letters [to the state governments], asking them to stay in the Union, wait for the new administration to be inaugurated, and we’ll work this out. But they refused. The die was cast before the chief executive of the country could take the oath of office.”
On March 4, Lincoln and Douglas appeared on the same stage for the last time, at Lincoln’s first inauguration. Douglas was there as a prominent senator. When Lincoln rose to take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural address, he looked for a place to put his stovepipe hat. Douglas reached out and took it, holding it during the speech. Three months later, Douglas was dead from a stroke.
Freeport’s Own Lincoln
George Buss is a retired public school teacher from Freeport and a sixth-generation Illinoisan who bears a remarkable resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. For the past 33 years, Buss has portrayed “Honest Abe” at numerous events, conferences, parades and re-enactments. Since his retirement from teaching in 2017, helping people “get right with Lincoln” has been his full-time job.
As a 5th and 6th grade student at Taylor Elementary, Buss recalls frequently having lunch with Lincoln by dining at the foot of Leonard Crunelle’s statue, “Lincoln the Debater,” in nearby Taylor Park. Thus began a lifelong interest and field of study for the Freeport native.
Buss made his first appearance as Lincoln in 1986, when he led the Illinois delegation to the floor of a National Education Association convention in New Orleans. That same year, he collaborated with Richard Sokup, also from Freeport, who portrayed Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois senator who opposed Lincoln in the now-famous 1858 debates.
In 1994, the pair teamed up in live broadcasts of the debates for a C-SPAN production, representing the dynamic duo in two of the seven debates, Freeport and Jonesboro. The partnership continued until Sokup’s death in 2004. Buss met a new partner in 2008, Tim Connors, the director of speech and theater at Freeport High School.
“He’s a stunning Douglas,” says Buss. “They referred to Rich [Sokup] as ‘The Senator,’ but we refer to Tim [Connors] as ‘The Little Giant.’”
Buss’s extensive knowledge about Lincoln’s life and times adds depth to his portrayal of our 16th president. He has given the annual commemoration of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19 in the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Penn., for the past five years. He has also brought Lincoln’s story to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, and to the New York Historical Society. Buss has been invited to tour Germany next year to take his portrayal of Lincoln to schools and other events.
Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area
Freeport has been added to the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area (ALNHA), under legislation enacted by Congress and signed into law in March. The Heritage Area consists of 43 counties in central Illinois where Lincoln spent nearly 30 years as a young man, lawyer, politician and president. It is managed by the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition (LFLHC) in collaboration with the National Park Service.
The ALNHA is one of 55 such areas nationwide, but the only one named for a U.S. president. The original legislation in 2008 required that the counties included be contiguous. In 2013, U.S. Rep. Adam Kinsinger (R-Ill.) proposed amending legislation to add Livingston County (part of the 8th Judicial Circuit in which Lincoln worked) to the area.
“When I was approached by Rep. Kinsinger for support on this legislation, I suggested we also add Jonesboro and Freeport to the area,” says Sarah Watson, executive director of LFLHC. “They were the only debate sites missing from the original area.”
George Buss was also instrumental in bringing people together to make the expansion happen. He met with Rep. Kinsinger and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) on several occasions to advocate for his hometown’s inclusion. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) shepherded the legislation through the Senate.
The Freeport Working Group is the primary coalition for demonstrating support from the local community. It consists of the Lincoln-Douglas Society board (including George Buss), Mayor Jodi Miller, City Manager Lowell Crow, Nicole Haas of the Greater Freeport Partnership and Ashley Huffines, executive director of the Freeport Public Library.
“National Heritage Area legislation designates a geographic area,” says Watson. “The LFLHC is the not-for-profit administrative entity. We receive funding and employ staff to coordinate activities, programs and marketing. Our primary purpose is to promote economic development through tourism in the area. We draw communities together and create itineraries to encourage people to visit multiple sites. Our affiliation with the National Park Service is also a huge benefit, both in name recognition and international scope.”
According to Watson, the top three tourism draws in Illinois are (1) Chicago, (2) Route 66 and (3) Abraham Lincoln. An economic impact study using 2016 data showed that $258.6 million was earned in tourism throughout the Heritage Area (which did not yet include Freeport, Jonesboro or Livingston County), $25.5 million in tax revenue was generated and tourism supported 3,234 local jobs.
To celebrate Freeport’s inclusion in the ALNHA, the city plans to hold a Looking for Lincoln event in July, 2020, coordinated by the Freeport Working Group and the Lincoln-Douglas Society (LDS).
The Society was created in 1929 with the donation of Leonard Crunelle’s statue, “Lincoln the Debater,” to the city, and the all-volunteer organization continues to this day. It maintains the historic Lincoln-Douglas Debate Square next to Union Dairy, where Lily Tolpo’s statues of “Lincoln and Douglas in Debate” have been located since 1992. The square also contains Debate Rock, which was dedicated by then-President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, and a series of panels explaining the history of events that took place there.
“We also sponsor programs to commemorate the original debate each year, on dates closest to Aug. 27,” says Nicole Bauer, president of LDS. “Last year’s program was performed by George Buss and Tim Connors. The sesquicentennial celebration of the debates in 2008 brought more than 20,000 people to attend the weekend events, a significant impact for the city.”
When Richard Sokup, Connors’ predecessor, died in 2004, he bequeathed some funds to LDS to sponsor a lecture every other year on a historical topic. This year’s lecture on Oct. 3 was presented by Anna Gibson Holloway and Jonathan W. White, based on their book, Our Little Monitor: the Greatest Invention of the Civil War, about the March 9, 1862 clash between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads, which marked the first time ironclad vessels engaged each other in combat.
“We have such a rich history in Freeport,” says Bauer. “We try to make locals aware of it, but also share it with others outside the area. Our recent inclusion in the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area will help us do just that.”