August, September, and October saw another anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a watershed moment in Abraham Lincoln’s political career and the end of slavery in the United States. Today in history, on November 7th 1858, incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas defeated Lincoln’s bid for the senate that had spurred their debates around Illinois. At the IDHH, we are looking back to our contributor the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s “Picture Chicago” and “Teaching with Digital Content (Cultural Heritage Community)” collections to rethink how the relationship between Lincoln and Douglas existed outside of the narrative of the famous 1858 debates.
Both these collections put items from a common cultural heritage in conversation with another, across the typical physical, institutional, and organizational lines that risk siloing these items. The Picture Chicago Collection, includes over 600 images originally published in books about Chicago and digitized by the University of Illinois’ Urbana and Chicago campus libraries, including photos of old Chicago, the city’s gangsters, and early municipal-industrial feats such as the Post Office’s pneumatic tube system and turning the direction of the Chicago River.
Teaching with Digital Content (Cultural Heritage Community), pulls together approximately 1,600 digitized items from a number of sources, including the University of Illinois Rare Book & Manuscript Library and Illinois History and Lincoln Collections as well as the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, as a model for K-12 teachers to integrate digital resources into their curricula, curating objects into discrete teaching units and learning guides. It includes posters from WWII, Japanese Dolls, photographs of civic and everyday life, photographs of pre-modern tools. This collaboration from across the state provides a generous perspective on the everyday lives of Illinoisans from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Slavery’s expansion into the new territories had been a fraught national debate for 40 years preceding the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 established the 36°30′ parallel, Missouri’s southern border, limiting the expansion of slavery above that line for all future territories west of the Mississippi River. 30 years later, the Compromise of 1850 was a bricolage of policy that designated California a free-soil territory in exchange for stricter fugitive stage laws in . Four years later, Stephen Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act which repealed the prohibition of slavery north of 36°30′ in exchange for “popular sovereignty”, the notion that federal territories could decide for themselves in territorial legislature whether to prohibit or allow slavery, created a deeper rift in the increasingly divided nation. Some believed that Dogulas’ promotion of popular sovereignty and give those with a stake in it immediate agency. Abolitionists took advantage of this, creating a small movement of people rapidly moving to Kansas to overwhelm polls. Open violence between abolitionist and pro-slavery militias became the norm in Kansas prompting the New-York Daily Tribune to name the territory “Bleeding Kansas”.
When the Supreme Court decided in the 1857 Dred Scott decision that neither Congress nor the territorial legislature could exclude slavery from a territory, both the doctrine of popular sovereignty and the compromises were delegitimized and voided. The overlapping policies, compromises, and rulings that continued to permit slavery’s expansion created an increasingly tense and violent political situation with the morality of the nation, the economic spine of new territories, and the lives of 3,000,000 enslaved people all at risk.
At the Republican Convention in Chicago, Illinois Republicans announced that if they won control of the house in the 1858 elections, they would unite in sending Lincoln to the Senate to succeed Senator Douglas- a national spokesman for the Democratic party who had been in the Senate since 1842. In his acceptance speech, now well-known as the “House Divided Speech” Lincoln took a firm stand against the spreading of slavery into territories and attacked popular sovereignty as a naïve form political idealism, citing that neither Congress nor the Supreme Court had respected popular sovereignty as it came to slavery. He claimed that this was a crucial point in deciding either the expansion of slavery to all corners of the country, or abolishing it for good. “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand,’” Lincoln wrote. “ I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” Lincoln’s platform, the total abolition of slavery or moral grounds to create a more just and united house, differed entirely from Douglas’ belief in territorial legislative governance.
After seizing the nomination, Lincoln spoke in Chicago the day after Douglas, challenging the latter’s appeal to popular sovereignty. When Douglas traveled to Springfield for another speech, Lincoln followed, again attacking popular sovereignty the day after Douglas spoke. After Lincoln’s speech in Springfield, Lincoln and Douglas chose to debate in the seven remaining Congressional districts around Illinois. The debates were each three hours long, and were held in Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton, between August 21st and October 15th. Douglas’ political fame and the gravity of slavery expansion attracted national attention from newspapers. People flocked to the debates, with especially large crowds in Freeport, Quincy, and Alton.
In the Freeport debate, Lincoln challenged Douglas to defend popular sovereignty against the Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court decided that slavery could not be excluded from territories, regardless of territorial legislation. Douglas’ words “It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please” rejected the certainty of the Dred Scott Decision, thereby establishing himself as a politician who would continue the spirit of compromises that were becoming bloody. The Freeport Doctrine, as it became known, alienated voters in both the northern free-states and the southern slave-holding states. Historians agree that this doctrine ultimately cost Douglas the presidency in 1860, but elevated Lincoln’s appeal to abolitionists across the Union.
Douglas went on to serve another term in the Senate, with the Democrats winning control of the Illinois General Assembly in the 1858 election. The debates continued to make an impact on the political climate. After the election, Lincoln collected the transcripts of the debates from newspapers and rigorously edited them, removing strategically manipulated text published by partisan newspapers looking to make one candidate or the other incompetent, and published them as one volume.
The stakes were incredibly high, with both the moral spine of the rapidly expanding nation and the lives of millions of people being directly impacted. Looking at the objects in the IDHH provided by the University of Illinois Library’s Digital Collections, we can look closer at the relationship between Lincoln and Douglas past the narrative of the debates, the “House Divided” speech and the Freeport Doctrine. In a letter written by Lincoln to Joseph Cunningham, a judge and newspaper publisher living in Urbana, Illinois Lincoln reflects on “crossing swords” with Douglas at their first debate in Ottawa the day before.
“The fire flew some,” Lincoln wrote to Cunningham, “and I am glad to know I am yet alive. There was a vast concourse of people– more than could near enough to hear.” Lincoln and Douglas had known each other and been debating for 20 years before hand, meeting first in the then-state capitol Vandalia and debating multiple times in the 1840’s and meeting for several concurrent speeches in the 1854 campaign. Their report was already well established, but could be easily overlooked, especially considering the political influence Douglas carried with him as the “Little Giant”.
In fact, the closeness of the political circle in Illinois, radiating outwards from the circuit courts, created a culture in which the political overtly crossed into their personal lives. It’s well known that Mary Todd Lincoln was courted by both Lincoln and Douglas in the 1840’s, shortly after moving to Springfield from her Lexington home. But an even more impressive proof of the proximity of Lincoln and Douglas is the story of these two life masks, made by Chicago sculptor Leonard Volk.
Douglas, a cousin of Volk’s wife Emily Clarissa Barlow, sponsored Volk to study in Rome. Upon his return in 1857 Volk chose to open a studio in Chicago, and created a life mask of Douglas.
The following year, Lincoln was introduced to Volk by Douglas himself during the debates. Lincoln, having read of Volk’s work, promised to sit for him for a bust the first chance he had. In an 1881 essay “The Lincoln Life-Mask and How it Was Made”, Volk recalls waiting nearly two years to see Lincoln again. In April 1860 while visiting Chicago, Lincoln finally came to sit for Volk in his studio on Washington and Dearborn Street, coming daily before court opened. Volk chose to create a plaster cast of Lincoln’s face and torso to base the bust from, rightly betting that Lincoln would only be in Chicago for a short while. The life mask that Volk created is one of only two life masks of Lincoln.
Volk continued to build a reputation as an artist and educator in Chicago. In 1866, along with a group of other Chicago artists founded the Chicago Academy of Design, which would become the School Art Institute of Chicago. He continued to create work based off the likeness of Douglas and Lincoln, including creating the Douglas Tomb and Memorial in Chicago and the statue of Lincoln on the east front of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
It is so easy to overlook the connections these figures had when considering the historical narrative and the stakes at hand. These objects help us remember the reality of their lives, while also bringing these cultural heritage objects to life. The Volk life masks became the templates for images of Lincoln and Douglas, and the reproductions of the Lincoln bust found in town halls, libraries, schools, court rooms and more across the nation.
For more Lincolniana, including the legacy of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, see all items related to Lincoln and Douglas on the IDHH.