Perspectives on Knox History

March 19, 2010


Contextual notes on the Lincoln-Douglas debates

Filed under: Uncategorized — Grant @ 5:38 pm

Hermann Muelder’s observation that “…abolitionism was derided [even] by men of good will who disliked slavery,” is an accurate and succinct summation of the status quo in antebellum America; it is especially relevant to our reading of Knox College’s history, considering that the predominant, overarching theme of the period from Knox’s foundation until the Civil War was the abolitionism. We have already witnessed how abolitionism was present from the earliest origins of the college, and how it subsequently factored into early sectarianism, but apart from cursory references, we have yet to examine how anti-slavery agitation manifested itself in local politics. Abolitionism was a distinguishing feature of both the college and town’s politics. From the foundation of the state’s very first Anti-Slavery Society, to one of Galesburg’s own, Matthew Chambers’s, campaign for state senate in 1842, President Blanchard’s infamous debate with Senator Stephen Douglas, and the climactic Lincoln-Douglas debates, the crusade against slavery was a principal political concern of Galesburg’s early citizenry.

The fourth of the seven senatorial debates, the Lincoln-Douglas debate held at Knox College in late October of 1858 was the defining political event in Knox County during the Civil War antebellum period. Abraham Lincoln, then a relatively unknown candidate from the nascent Republican Party, debated Democratic stalwart and incumbent, Stephen Douglas, the infamous author of the pivotal 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which superseded the provisions of Compromise of 1850 with the expansion of the implementation of popular sovereignty, or a state’s right to individually permit or deny slavery within its territorial limits. While the events and rhetoric of that day are now the source of much popular folklore, the debate was the product of decades of political activism at Knox College and in Galesburg. Unfortunately, this context is not widely discussed in relation to the debates.

The first settlers to arrive in Galesburg in 1836-7 were largely an ideologically homogeneous group. Although not all of the subscribers to George Washington Gale’s Circular and Plan were strict proponents of his evangelical educational mission (some had utilized the venture as a means to travel west) the majority of emigrants were Presbyterian or Congregationalist congregants — and both sects admonished slavery as a practice. From its earliest days, the residents of the Galesburg colony listened to religious sermons preaching the abolition of slavery; first in Gale’s cabin in Log City, then in the Old First Church, and the subsequent First Presbyterian and Congregationalist Churches. Before the introduction of the railroads in 1854, which nearly quadrupled the town’s population in one year, Galesburg was a relatively insulated community, notorious amongst neighboring townships for its progressive social mores.

In 1837, the fledgling community’s first year, Galesburg’s founders saw that an Anti-Slavery Society, auxiliary to the American Anti-Slavery society, was established. The following year, in 1838, Galesburg representatives played a preeminent role at the state Anti-Slavery convention in Farmington. This convention, coupled with a series of political debates on the slavery issue in Monmouth that same year, lent the Galesburg band of abolitionists a great degree of notoriety, prompting their ideological opponents to proclaim their leader, George Washington Gale “the great champion of abolitionism” in Illinois. True to his stature, Gale would later become the only Illinoisan ever to appear in deliberations of the national convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society when he attended in 1839.

By the opening of the decade in 1840, abolitionism in Illinois had found new steam in an abolitionist political party: the Liberty Party. Evidence of the politicization of abolitionism in early Galesburg, two Knox College trustees were chosen as presidential electors for the Liberty Party ticket. Spread over the next elections, several Knox College Board members ran for political offices under the Liberty banner; one for United States Congress, and two for the Illinois state senate. Although the Liberty Party, a third party, initially received few votes, their numbers increased as the party achieved greater organization. From its beginning, the Liberty Party garnered significant support from the Galesburg precincts, leading George Washington Gale to triumphantly remark to Liberty Party Presidential candidate James Birney that “[his] precinct casts more votes for the Liberty Party than both of the other parties united.” Gale and other prominent members of the Galesburg Colony were instrumental in caucusing for the Liberty Party among local, state, and even national, evangelicals.

By the decade’s close, the Liberty Party’s success had hit a metaphorical ceiling. For sure, the Party had never really had major success, aside from the greater acceptance of the principles it promoted. Birney, the party’s candidate for President in the 1840 and 1844 presidential elections, had never netted more than a fraction (less than 5%) of the national popular vote. The party’s progress was limited by its reputation as a third party, and further electoral success was compromised by political alliances that necessitated political bargaining. This, coupled with internal dissension over the 1848 Wilmot Proviso, banning slavery in new territories acquired from the war with Mexico, led to the party’s eventual absorption into the national Free Soil Party, which espoused a similar anti-slavery platform.

The Free Soil Party remained the vanguard of the political abolition movement until the landmark 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, authored by the Democratic Senator from Illinois, Stephen Douglas. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska essentially invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, as well as the previous compromise of 1850, which was credited with temporarily avoiding the threat of secession at that time. In the midst of the Mexican-American War, and Texas’s admission to the union, a debate erupted over the future of new additions to the Union. In 1820, this issue had been rather simply resolved by resorting to an imaginary demarcation between north and south established at 35.5′ latitude, colloquially referred to as the Mason-Dixon line. All newly admitted states to the Union that south of the demarcation would provisionally be slave states; all states to the North, free.

In 1850, this simplified approach was scrapped, with concessions to both Northern and Southern interests. Slavery would be determined by referendum — “popular sovereignty” as it was termed — in the new southwestern states, while northern interests in the Pacific, namely California, would be maintained. Other provisions included an expansion of the Fugitive Slave laws, a concession to the Southern states. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act expanded the practice of popular sovereignty to the new state admissions of Kansas and Nebraska. The bill’s principal advocate, Senator Stephen Douglas, stood behind his conception of self-determination as his motivation for proposing the bill, while opponents derided the Bill in moral and economic terms; Blanchard and Lincoln both had opportunities to publicly air their grievances in person with the bill’s architect, Stephen Douglas. Though no text of the speeches remain, Blanchard is purported to have been an able opponent of the senator, while Lincoln, likewise, through his rhetoric, established a foundation for a political trajectory that would vault him to the presidency in six short years.

Similar to the political splintering that occurred with the introduction 1848 Wilmot Proviso, the Kansas-Nebraska Act served as the catalyst for the formation of a new political party: the Republicans. Founded by anti-slavery expansion activists, the Republican Party became the second major party, opposite the Democrats. Composed primarily of old-time Whigs and other anti-slavery political, the invention of the Republican Party would polarize the American political spectrum between advocates of slavery, and its opponents. The ascent of a national anti-slavery party did not necessarily mean the popularization of abolitionist sentiment, however. As Dr. Muelder remarked, however, there was a significant distinction between abolition, or the agitation for the removal of slavery, and “anti-slavery” in terms of slavery’s expansion. This distinction would become apparent with the presidential candidacy of John Fremont in 1864. A hard-line abolitionist nominated by a dissenting Republican faction by a group known as the ‘Radical Republicans,’ who had become disillusioned with Abraham Lincoln’s purportedly weak position on slavery, Fremont later became popular amongst the strict abolitionists in Galesburg. His reputation later gained him the recognition of having a street named in his honor.

On the heels of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, the U.S. senate elections of 1858 provided the next significant platform for the discussion of slavery politics. In the four years since the Republican Party’s inception, Galesburg had established itself as Republican stronghold.

Galesburg’s citizens had transitioned from the Free Soil Party to the Republicans in support of their similar Anti-Slavery agenda. The senatorial debate series was arbitrarily divided between Republican and Democratic influenced areas. When Lincoln arrived on that fall day in October 1858, he was greeted by an overwhelmingly sympathetic crowd of Galesburg residents among a considerably smaller Douglas contingent. The events and rhetoric of that day, most notably Lincoln’s famous accusation that “He [Douglas] is blowing out the moral lights around us…” were a direct response to the local and national political situation that had embroiled Illinois and the nation in controversy.

–Grant Forssberg, ‘09
Post-Baccalaureate Fellow

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