By David J. Kent
Tuesday, December 14, 2021
Everyone knows that Abraham Lincoln debated seven times during their famous 1858 Senate race. But which sites are the best? Author Edward McClelland ranks them in order. His rankings are based on two parameters: How well each town honors the event's legacy; and how interesting it is to visit, at least to McClelland. You can read a quick overview of the debates here. I toured the seven debates sites myself in 2018, so I'll offer my own thoughts of the sites as well.
The order of the debates did not seem to be a major factor in his rankings. After agreeing to the joint debates, the two Illinois politicians started slightly southeast of Chicago, in Ottawa. They then traveled to the far north to Freeport, then the far south to Jonesboro, then circled counterclockwise around central Illinois with stops in Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and finally, Alton.
Alton does come in last in McClelland's rankings, mainly because the grand City Hall overseeing the original debate burned down in the 1920s. That makes the view a large grain elevator and casino. I found the riverfront site to be more ennobling. A grand terrace creates an audience view of the two men debating on a raised platform. The positioning of the statues does ensure the large "Welcome to Alton" sign is in every photograph, which is as good an advertising strategy as it is annoying for picture-takers. You can see photos of all the debate sites here.
In contrast, Galesburg gets McClelland's top spot, this time because of the presence of the original building called The Old Main on the campus of Knox College. The monument to the debate consists solely of two plaques on the exterior wall on either side of the door. The platform had originally been further away from the building but moved up against the wall due to bad weather. Lincoln and Douglas had to walk in the front door and crawl out the window to get on the stage, giving Lincoln his first opportunity to actually "go through college," a story related more here.
Second in the rankings is Charleston, which has statues of the two in debate, but also is the only site with an actual museum. The museum is small, essentially one tiny room, and there was no docent present during my visit, but you view the artifacts, some background, and watch a short film of the debate. [Like many cases, the actor playing Lincoln wears the beard we all know him by even though Lincoln didn't grow the beard until after the 1860 election.]
The rankings proceed from there with Quincy, Jonesboro, Freeport, and Ottawa in order before finishing with the aforementioned Alton. Five of the seven sites boast dual statues of Lincoln and Douglas in a park-like setting (Ottawa has them standing on a platform in the middle of a fountain and pool). The exceptions are Galesburg has its wall plaques and Quincy with a large bas-relief monument. Photos can be seen here.
Whether you agree with McClelland's rankings or not, all of the seven debate sites are worth seeing. One of my "Chasing Abraham Lincoln" tours had me zigzagging across Illinois to see the sites, as well as many other Lincoln statues. For those contemplating a visit to "The Land of Lincoln," I highly recommend it.
[Photo by David J. Kent at Jonesboro debate site, 2018]