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Located on the eastern edge of the Coles County Fairgrounds, the Lincoln Douglas Debate Museum commemorates and interprets the famous debates held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas during their campaign for a Senate seat in 1858. Charleston, Illinois, was the site of the fourth of their seven debates, though the museum covers the entire election campaign as well as the prior lives of the two contenders. The museum is open daily from 9am to 4pm and offers free admission.


Democrat Stephen A. Douglas had held one of Illinois's seats in the United States Senate since 1847 when he ran for re-election against Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln in 1858. Since U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures rather than by popular vote prior to the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, neither Lincoln nor Douglas appeared on the ballot. Nevertheless, both candidates launched grueling statewide campaigns in the summer of 1858 in order to encourage voters to support legislative candidates of their respective parties, and ultimately agreed to meet each other in seven face-to-face debates held at locations throughout Illinois. The sites included: Ottawa (August 21, 1858), Freeport (August 27), Jonesboro (September 15), Charleston (September 18), Galesburg (October 7), Quincy (October 13), and Alton (October 15).

Throughout all seven debates, as well as their other public speeches, Lincoln and Douglas focused on the issue of slavery--and particularly its potential expansion into western territories--that was tearing the nation apart. Lincoln campaigned on a "free soil" platform, arguing that the U.S. Congress could and should prohibit slavery from all territories that had not yet become states, arguing that such a policy was consistent with the wishes of the Founding Fathers and that it would ultimately promote slavery's abolition in the states where it already existed. Douglas did not believe that slavery would likely expand into the West in any case, but did believe that the free soil policy was impolitic and might provoke southern slaveholding states to secede. Thus, he urged the application of his "popular sovereignty" policy, through which voters in each western territory could decide for themselves, through their territorial legislatures, whether slavery should be legal or illegal there.

Although many of their arguments were highly legalistic, the tone of the debates grew quite fierce as both Lincoln and Douglas denounced each other's policy proposals as dangerous to the country and contrary to the its founding ideals. Douglas bitterly attacked Lincoln as an abolitionist, arguing that he stood for emancipation and racial equality and insisting that the United States was founded by and for the benefit of whites alone. Lincoln denied these charges but did insist that the Declaration of Independence meant precisely what it said--that "all men are created equal"--and that workers, regardless of skin color, had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labors and rise through hard work and talent.

Ultimately, pro-Lincoln legislators received around 30,000 more votes than pro-Douglas legislators did, but the apportionment of legislative seats favored the heavily Democratic counties in southern Illinois, giving Douglas's friends a 54-46 majority in the legislature. Thus, Douglas was returned to the Senate for his third term in January 1859. A year later, Lincoln and Douglas would face each other again in the four-sided presidential election of 1860. Lincoln's triumph that year would provide the spark for the secession crisis and the outbreak of the American Civil War.

"Lincoln Douglas Debate Museum", Accessed December 16th 2019. https://www.charlestonillinois.org/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC=%7B7587ACEC-A43F-46B2-8A35-37EAE44C5F78%7D.

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America. New York. Simon & Schuster, 2009.