Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, July 27, 2017
After exploring Fort Robinson for a couple of hours yesterday morning, I washed my face, changed my clothes, ate a hearty cooked breakfast in the restaurant in the main lodge, and drove east across Nebraska.
The drive was beautiful, vast blue-blue-blue skies with towering puffy clouds and occasional gray ones that blew through and dropped a little rain on the way. Rainbows faded in and out of view. The green and gold fields sometimes laid flat and sometimes rolled over gentle slopes and undulations. The road ran straight and wound among them accordingly. Tidy farmhouses were scattered across the land, and silos and grain elevators rose high near little town clusters, some full of quiet life on this warm summer afternoon, some nearly or entirely abandoned and decayed. I drove through the early evening until I decided I could no longer do without a nice shower and a proper bed. So I found a little hotel in Missouri Valley, Iowa and got a good night’s rest. This morning, I linger until nearly noon to finish writing up and publishing one of my pieces for this series.
I continue east towards Peoria, and about an hour before I reach that city, I spot a highway sign for an Abraham Lincoln historical site in Galesburg, Illinois. I turn off the highway and follow the signs to Knox College.
Knox College was chartered in 1837 by the Illinois state legislature while Abraham Lincoln was still a member. It was founded by New York minister George Washington Gale and a group of fellow idealists and reformers. They were, among other things, dedicated to training people in self-sufficiency and the practical arts, to opposing slavery, and to providing women with a full education. So the twenty-one-year-old college no doubt enthusiastically welcomed the rising young anti-slavery politician already widely known for his unique combination of eloquence and broad knowledge, and his awkward, homespun, frontier appearance. He was engaged in a series of seven debates with the well-dressed, polished, canny career politician Stephen A. Douglas, who Lincoln was hoping to replace as Illinois Senator in the 1859 election. (At this time, senators were still elected into office by the state legislatures rather than by popular vote.)
The fifth debate of the series was held here at Knox College on October 7, 1858, on the east lawn of the newly constructed Main building, now called Old Main. Plaques of Lincoln and Douglas are placed on the east wall of the Old Main to commemorate the event. This building, in fact, is the only remaining original building associated with these famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Since it was a cold and blustery fall day, the debate was moved from an open lawn to a spot at the side of the Main building where the stage was sheltered from the wind; it couldn’t be moved inside because there were 10,000-20,000 people there, depending on which newspaper account you read. All agree that the audience was enormous.
Lincoln climbed through a window to reach the debate platform and as he did, he reportedly quipped ‘Well, at least I’ve gone through college.’ We tend to think of him as a somber man, ever dignified, ever noble in his comportment. He has attained such a mythical status as a moral leader and shepherd of our nation through our most severe national crisis, and his image in photographs, portraits, and sculpture are almost as invariably solemn, stately, unsmiling, his face often drawn with sorrow, as he appears in our collective imagination. But, Lincoln was actually quite playful and even goofy sometimes, a joker and teller of humorous, sometimes bawdy stories. If you’ve watched the excellent Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, you’ve seen that delightful scene where he tells a naughty joke about a painting of George Washington and an outhouse. In case you want to know how the joke goes, well, I’m not going to tell you. Not because I mind telling naughty jokes (I love ’em!) but because if you’ve seen the film, you likely remember it, and if you haven’t, it’s high time you did, and I hope your curiosity about this joke is now one more incentive to do so.
As they debated here, one of the main points on which Douglas attacked Lincoln was his alleged sectionalism. He argued that the Republican party platform was all about appealing to extremist adherents to regional political doctrines that the Northerners subscribed to, but not the South. But he, Douglas claimed, was the true believer in a universal principle: popular sovereignty. The states and all new territories that were admitted to the Union should each vote on whether or not to allow slavery within their own borders. After all, wasn’t the United States founded on the idea that people had the right to govern themselves? It was sectionalists like Lincoln who were worsening the growing pains of our nation. The national debate over slavery was dividing the nation ever more sharply was new territories were added, and with each new addition, North and South worried anew over the resulting balance of power between free and slave slaves.
Lincoln, however, turned Douglas’ argument right back on him. Lincoln argued that slavery was wrong while admitting that the Constitution allowed for it to continue in the South where it had already existed. He further argued that the law must be obeyed as it stood. But he also believed that some of the slave-owning founders of our nation, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, as well all of the non-slave-owning founders, believed that slavery was a moral evil and hoped it would die out or be abolished over time. Lincoln pointed out unlike the founders, Douglas refused to take a moral stand on slavery; he insisted it should be a matter of popular sovereignty, up to the states to decide for themselves. In short, Douglas believed that sectional interests should decide the matter. Lincoln pressed Douglas on this point throughout the debates, especially at Knox College: either slavery is right or it is wrong, and as such, it should not simply be up to local popular vote. After all, this was a moral matter about those human rights such as those enumerated in the Bill of Rights. It was not merely a practical matter of ‘domestic affairs’ as Douglas put it, such as apportioning funds for regional projects, administering local public institutions, or community policing.
Now, of course, we would press Lincoln today just as he pressed Douglas on this point: if slavery was as wrong as Lincoln said it was for the reasons he said it was, then it would be intolerable anywhere it existed, the South included. Lincoln, in this, was as inconsistent as he accused Douglas of being. Slavery, after all, consisted of the imprisonment of the innocent, rape, child abduction, forced labor, wage theft, torture, even murder: all incompatible with the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. Now Lincoln knew this: as he pointed out in an earlier speech, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.’ Yet, very much a border state man of his time, it took him a long time to reconcile the complex socioeconomic issues surrounding slavery with the convictions of his reason and his conscience. He may have been willing to allow slavery to continue if that’s what it took to preserve the Union, but as he himself more than hinted at, this would be futile anyway. Either slavery would dissolve away on its own, which the Missouri Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1954, and the Dred Scott decision of 1857 made appear a more distant and unlikely outcome than ever; or, slavery needed to be abolished. It would take Lincoln quite some time to fully evolve in the courage of his convictions and work to stop slavery everywhere it existed.
The argument, which some continue to make today, that we should have allowed slavery to continue in the South in the expectation that it would gradually fade away on its own, to preserve the Union while averting the terrible and bloody Civil War, has always appeared to me at least extremely odd, if not morally repugnant. It especially disturbs me when I hear otherwise reasonable people make it, especially those who I otherwise admire and respect. After all, as I point out above and as I’ll repeat, slavery was imprisonment of the innocent, forced labor, destruction of families, and wage theft, and rife with rape, child abduction, torture, and murder, institutionalized with the blessing of the slave states. If slaveowners were kind to their slaves as far as the institution would allow, well, this rested entirely on their own good will. Even where laws existed to protect slaves from the worst abuses, such as murder, rape, and egregious physical punishment, enforcement of these laws were rare, and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision effectively erased the right for wronged black people, free as well as slave, to take their cases to court. To drive this point home, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote in his majority opinion that black people ‘had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.’ And slave families were necessarily torn apart on a regular basis since most slaveowners could not afford to maintain growing slave populations as they increased through childbirth. Would anyone seriously advocate, in any other circumstance, that we should permit rape, and murder, and torture, and tearing children from their families, and systematic imprisonment of the innocent to continue unabated in order to avoid war? Aren’t these the very sorts of things that the only wars we call just are fought to prevent?
Lincoln was awarded Knox College’s first honorary degree in 1860. Barack Obama was accorded that same honor in 2005, and I think this would make Knox College’s progressive founders very proud. Though Lincoln sometimes revealed that he had as many racial prejudices as a typical man of his time, opposing slavery while not believing that black and white people were fully equal or could live together in harmony, his thoughts and feelings in these matters apparently changed over time. As the Civil War went on and he was forced to confront issues of race head-on, he demonstrated growth in his understanding of the evils not only of slavery but of racism generally. So much so, in fact, that when Frederick Douglass met President Lincoln in person, he had a very positive impression of him, though Douglass had been his long-time and often very severe critic. They still did not agree on many matters of policy, but Douglass was impressed with Lincoln’s courteous treatment of him and his apparent lack of interpersonal racial prejudice. So I think that Abraham Lincoln, after getting used to the idea and observing the proof that it was slavery, not biology, that created the cultural gulf between white and black people, would also be proud that Obama is a fellow honoree and a fellow president, and of his own contributions to making that possible.
Sources and inspiration:
Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995
‘Fifth Debate – Galesburg, October 7‘. History of the 1858 Debates: Lincoln-Douglas Debate Communities, from Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition website
‘Galesburg, Knox College, October 7, 1858.’ Mr. Lincoln and Freedom by The Lehrman Institute
Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889
Holzer, Harold. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004
‘Knox College & Lincoln‘ from Lincoln Studies Center: About Knox, Knox College website
‘Knox College Circular & Plan‘ from About Knox: Our History, Knox College website
Oakes, James. The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007
‘Scott V. Sandford | 1857‘. Landmark Cases: Historic Supreme Court Decisions, C-SPAN’s 12-part history series produced in cooperation with the National Constitution Center