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Celebration of the Semi-Centennial of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Fifty years ago, the attention of the whole country was turned to
the then Western State of lUinois. The war cloud was rising in the
south, and the new territories beyond the Mississippi were beginning
to attract the attention of many settlers, and as the importance of the
trans-Mississippi country began to be realized by the people, general
interest in the subject of the extension of slavery was felt, and was
crystallized in the halls of the Congress of the United States. Should
Kansas and Nebraska come into the Union as free or slave states?
That was the burning question of the day. Nebraska was to have
territorial government, but it was divided by the measures of 1854,
and the southern part was called Kansas. Mr. Douglas believed that
the people of the territories ought to decide for themselves as to whether
or not their states should be slave or free. Mr. Lincoln believed there
should be no more slave states. The story of the eloquent debates be-
tween these two intellectual giants is too well known to need re-telling.
Mr. Lincoln was nominated by his party, as its choice for a seat in
the Senate of the United States at the State convention held at Spring-
field, June 16, 1858, for the place then filled by Stephen A. Douglas.
Mr. Douglas was a candidate for re-election. The two sides of the
controversy were presented to the people of Illinois in a series of
speeches by the two champions; and their adherents became excited
to a burning enthusiasm. Speeches were made at various towns by
each, and it became the custom for them to reply to charges made in the
speeches of the other, and finally, Mr. Lincoln, on the advice of friends,
sent a challenge to Mr. Douglas, asking him to meet him in joint debate
upon the questions of the day. The challenge was accepted and seven
great joint debates were held. These debates called the attention of
the whole country to the senatorial contest in Illinois and have been
called the introduction of the State into politics, as a great force which
must be considered in all political plans of a national character. John
T. Morse, Jr., a biographer of Mr. Lincoln, in speaking of the first
published edition of the debates, says :
"It Is just appreciation, not extravagance, to say that the cheap and mis-
erable little volume, now out of print, containing in bad newspaper type 'THE
LINCOLN AND DOUGLAS DEBATES,' holds some of the masterpieces of
oratory of all ages and nations."
Seldom, if ever, have people had an opportunity such as was given
the people of Illinois in 1858, to learn the fundamental reasons for
political tenets and beliefs. The debates are unique. They have often
been imitated, but as there have fortunately, been no questions before
the people involving such vital principles, and perhaps no such men
as Lincoln and Douglas to present the issues, there has been nothing
like these meetings in the forum of the people. The Lincoln-Douglas
debates stand alone in our history. They mark an epoch in the
career of each of these two great men. They mark an era in the his-
tory of Illinois. They mark an era in the history of the nation.
They introduced Abraham Lincoln to the people of the United States,
and they brought Illinois to place and power in the nation. So it is
proper that the people of Illinois should, in a fitting manner, celebrate
the fiftieth anniversay of these great intellectual and moral struggles.
The Illinois State Historical Society hopes to assist the people of the
various towns where the original debates occurred in commemorating
these historic events. A committee of the State Society has been named
with a member in each of the towns. The society has no wish to dic-
tate in the matter of local celebrations. It wishes merely to assist the
local committees. The secretary of the Historical Society and Honor-
able Clark E. Carr, the chairman of the committee of the Historical
Society, will gladly answer any questions or render any assistance in
The society begs to offer the following suggestions:
The celebrations will occur at each of the seven towns where the
original debates occurred and should be given on the anniversary of
the original debate, and at the same hour of the day, and as nearly as
may be practicable, on the same spot where the original debate oc-
At Ottawa, Friday, August 21, 1908.
At Freeport, Thursday, August 27, 1908.
At Jonesboro, Tuesday, September 15, 1908.
At Charleston, Friday, September 18, 1908.
At Galesburg, Wednesday, October 7, 1908.
At Quincy, Tuesday, October 13, 1908.
At Alton, Thursday, October 15, 1908.
It is certainly time to have plans made for these celebrations.
Each town should have an orator to make an address or perhaps
two orators, one to speak on Mr. Lincoln, and one to speak on
Senator Douglas. It will be well to have special provisions made
for those persons who heard the original debates. It might be well to
have a memorial badge, or souvenir, to indicate these survivors. Ask
the ladies of each town to show the costumes that were worn by the
women on the day of the original debate. There will probably be
some one among the older ladies who will have some articles of dress
which were worn by some woman of her acquaintance on the historic
day. Have these stirvivors occupy seats of honor, either on the plat-
form or in comfortable and conspicuous places. It is of the utmost
importance that orators of reputation and ability be secured at once.
These selections should be made as soon as possible. Each of these
towns have been visited by Honorable Clark E. Carr, the chairman of
the committee of the Illinois State Historical Society. Colonel Carr
held conferences in each of the towns and made many excellent sug-
gestions, which are, no doubt, remembered.
The most important thing of all is that these celebrations should be
given by the whole town, that there should be no party politics nor
cliques in them. Make every effort to have it a celebration by the
people of your town, your county, your vicinity. Try to secure the
best possible speakers. Your newspapers will be of the greatest assis-
tance to you. Be sure to have a committee on advertising or publi-
The time is short. There must be no delay. If these meetings are to
be successful, you must work, and you must work hard, and must work
together. The woman's clubs will assist greatly with, the details
The school children must take part. The Historical Society
will be very glad to have the written reminiscences of as many as possi-
ble of the persons who heard the original debates. The board of directors
of the Illinois State Historical Library some months ago, appointed
a commission to examine into the value of historical documents before
the library published them. A committee from this commission with
Prof. E. E. Sparks as chairman, has prepared a circular on the semi-
centennial of the debates, and the State Department of Public Instruc-
tion published the circular. It contains many helpful suggestions.
Copies of it can be obtained by writing to the State Superintend-
ent of Public Instruction. Let me say again that the time is short
and the work is great. Lose no time. Make every effort to have
your own local celebration the best of the seven. Call on the secretary
of the Illinois Historical Society for any aid which is in her power.
This is to be for the Historical Society, the special work of the summer
The State Historical Society is hoping to have for the celebration
of the one hundredth anniversary of Mr. Lincoln which occurs Feb-
ruary 12, 1909, a very great exhibit of souvenirs of Mr. Lincoln and
his times. It is hoped that this celebration of the debates may be the
means of procuring much interesting material for this exhibit. Per-
sons having letters, addresses, books, pamphlets or pictures of Mr.
Lincoln or Senator Douglas or of persons or events connected with
either of them will please inform the secretary of the society of the
existence of such valuable material.
Chairmen of local committees are earnestly requested to report to the
secretary of the society what steps have already been taken towards
the celebration. It will greatly facilitate the work if these reports are
made at once.
The time is short, the labor is great, the occasion is one of great
historic importance. No other such opportunity will probably, come to
your community for at least another fifty years. Let us make the cel-
ebration worthy of the great actors, and let them be models of what
a celebration of a great historic event may be. Let them be filled with
enthusiasm, harmony and broad patriotism.