The debaters’ next venue was Knox College in the western Illinois town of Galesburg, a bastion of evangelical religion and abolitionism. On the day of the debate, October 7, torrential rains and gusting winds sent campaign signs skittering and forced debate organizers to move the speakers’ platform, sheltering it against the outside wall of the neo-Gothic Old Main hall. The platform was so high, however, that the two candidates had to climb through the building’s second-floor windows and then down a ladder to the stage. Lincoln drew a laugh when he remarked, “At last I can say now that I’ve gone through college!”
“It took Lincoln several debates to figure out how to get on the offensive,” says Douglas L. Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College. “Unlike Douglas, who always said the same things, Lincoln was always looking for a new angle to use. Rather, Lincoln’s strategy was about impact and momentum. He knew that at Galesburg he’d have a good chance to sway hearts and minds.”
The atmosphere was raucous. Banners proclaimed: “Douglas the Dead Dog—Lincoln the Living Lion,” and “Greasy Mechanics for A. Lincoln.” Estimates of the crowd ranged up to 25,000.
When Lincoln stepped forward, he seemed a man transformed. His high tenor voice rang out “as clear as a bell,” one listener recalled. Without repudiating his own crude remarks at Charleston, he challenged Douglas’ racism on moral grounds. “I suppose that the real difference between Judge Douglas and his friends, and the Republicans on the contrary, is that the Judge is not in favor of making any difference between slavery and liberty…and consequently every sentiment he utters discards the idea that there is any wrong in slavery,” Lincoln said. “Judge Douglas declares that if any community want slavery, they have a right to have it. He can say that, logically, if he says that there is no wrong in slavery; but if you admit that there is a wrong in it, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.” In the judgment of most observers, Lincoln won the Galesburg debate on all points. The pro-Lincoln Chicago Press and Tribune reported: “Mr. Douglas, pierced to the very vitals by the barbed harpoons which Lincoln hurls at him, goes around and around, making the water foam, filling the air with roars of rage and pain, spouting torrents of blood, and striking out fiercely but vainly at his assailant.”