Quincy's role in Lincoln's rise to the presidency touted at Saturday event

Abraham Lincoln impersonator George Buss chats with Quincy Mayor Kyle Moore during Saturday’s “Lincoln in the District” festival in Washington Park. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Jun. 7, 2014 9:17 pm Updated: Jun. 21, 2014 11:15 pm

By EDWARD HUSARHerald-Whig Staff Writer

Rain may have put a damper on Saturday's "Lincoln in the District" festival at Washington Park, but it didn't diminish the moment.

Organizers went ahead with planned speeches and the dedication of a major new exhibit inside the warm and dry Lincoln-Douglas Debate Interpretive Center across Fifth Street from the rain-drenched park.

"It we could measure the day by the historical content, this was truly a stellar event," said Iris Nelson, a member of the interpretive center's advisory board that was co-hosting the program.

The focus of the event was events that took place Oct. 13, 1858, in Washington Park, site of the sixth of seven Illinois debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas while they competed for a U.S. Senate seat. Local researchers are claiming that the "turning point" in Lincoln's rise to the presidency occurred during the Quincy debate.

The argument is the subject of the new historical exhibit inside the interpretive center. It was also the subject of a talk Saturday by David Costigan, Quincy University professor emeritus of history.

Costigan said research conducted several years ago by a group of local historians shows that Lincoln started taking a different approach in his debates with Douglas starting in Quincy.

Through the first five debates -- in Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston and Galesburg -- Lincoln was often on the defensive against Douglas, one of the most powerful and influential politicians in the nation.

Costigan said research shows that the week before the Quincy debate, Lincoln spent time in Burlington, Iowa, with Iowa Gov. James W. Grimes, who urged Lincoln to be more aggressive against Douglas.

Lincoln took this advice to heart and came out swinging at the Quincy debate on the fiery topic of slavery.

"This is where Lincoln took off the gloves," Costigan said.

Lincoln set himself apart from Douglas by asserting that slavery "was a moral, political and social evil," Costigan said.

"He had said this briefly at Galesburg, but he said it in detail at Quincy," he said. "He expanded on the morality issue of slavery, saying if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong."

Costigan said Lincoln's more aggressive stance caught the attention of David Locke, an Ohio newspaperman attending the Quincy debate. Locke was so impressed with Lincoln that his newspaper, the Sandusky Commercial Register, came out with a story about two weeks later under the headline "Lincoln for President."

It wasn't long before other newspapers across the country also started mentioning Lincoln as a possible candidate for the presidency.

"It started here in the sixth debate," Costigan said. "Quincy needs to be on the Lincoln map for its importance to his career."

George Buss of Freeport, a nationally known Lincoln impersonator, was also on Saturday's program. Dressed as Lincoln and speaking in character, Buss quoted some of the words Lincoln spoke in Quincy.

"There is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence -- the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal to every other man," he said in character as Lincoln.

In an interview, Buss said claims that the Quincy debate was the turning point in Lincoln's rise to the presidency are "very convincing" based on the primary source documents studied by local researchers. He said it's clear Lincoln started voicing some new arguments beginning with the Quincy debate.

"The text of the debates is probably one of the most well-documented pieces of history by numerous stenographers from the media keeping track of every word, so the analysis is very deep," he said.

The keynote speaker Saturday was Lincoln scholar Vernon Burton, author of "The Age of Lincoln" and other books.

Burton spoke about the value of history and the importance of education.

"Lincoln believed in education as a way to open one's mind and learn other points of view," Burton said. "Lincoln changed his mind on race as he met and listened carefully to African-Americans."

Burton said that during their seven debates, "Lincoln and Douglas were debating two versions of America." Douglas "stood blatantly for white supremacy," he noted, while Lincoln stressed the importance of personal freedom.

"Lincoln's challenge to white supremacy was incredibly heroic for any politician at that time," Burton said.

A standing-room-only crowd attended the festival inside the interpretive center. Among them were Neil Wright, who teaches political science at QU, and his fiancee, Jennifer Jakob, who teaches in the Chicago area.

"I think it's remarkable that Quincy has things like this," Wright said.