Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lincoln-Douglas Debate before the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Chicago Tribune broke the news this week that a history professor at St. Xavier University (in Chicago) has uncovered a lengthy account of the famous exchange between Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas over the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.

Click here to read the newspaper report.

In 1854, Douglas, the democratic senator from Illinois, returned to the Illinois State Fair where he justified his promotion of popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska territory. Lincoln, who was rumored to be active in the nascent Republican Party, offered a lengthy rebuttal of Douglas' speech that same day.

This was four years before the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, which occurred in 1858. In 1854, Lincoln was a former one-term congressman who was about to emerge as one of the leaders of the new Republican Party in Illinois. During the fall of that year, Lincoln shadowed Douglas' speaking tour in Illinois, offering rebuttals in virtually every location where Douglas spoke.

The newly uncovered newspaper report from the Missouri Republican will offer more coverage of the first lengthy exchange between Lincoln and Douglas. While it is likely one-sided, favoring either Lincoln or Douglas given the partisan affiliations of most newspapers in the mid-19th Century, the article will still be influential. This explains why the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association will reprint the 1854 Missouri Republican article in full, along with a lengthy introduction by the historian who uncovered it, Graham Peck, in its July issue.

The fall of 1854, in the weeks after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln became, by his own account, an awakened politician who found his voice attacking the political philosophy behind popular sovereignty. Historians have also recognized this as a period of Lincoln's awakening, shaping his thought and actions in ways that would lead to his unlikely election as president in 1860. A recent book, Lincoln at Peoria by Lewis Lehrman, recounts this time period.

I am just back from a visit to Washington DC, where I attended a symposium on Lincoln hosted by the Library of Congress (which I will comment on in a future post). One of the curious things about the six lectures on various different aspects of Lincoln each mentioned Lincoln's 1854 speech at Peoria, which was very similar to Lincoln's speech at the Illinois State Fair a few days earlier. So the discovered contemporary account of this exchange is not only significant for Lincoln students, it is also evidently timely.

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