The right side of history: Galesburg

Site of pivotal Lincoln-Douglas debate was also a key stop on the Underground Railroad

Owen Muelder talks in front of a Lincoln plaque on the east side of Old Main at Knox College, where Abraham Lincoln's debate with Stephen Douglas took place. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Owen Muelder talks in front of a Lincoln plaque on the east side of Old Main at Knox College, where Abraham Lincoln's debate with Stephen Douglas took place. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Galesburg is proud of its history as the site of what many consider the pivotal debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, and nobody tells the story better than Owen Muelder.

Muelder is director of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center at Knox College, all of which grows organically out of the town's origins as a planned community conceived by Presbyterian minister George Washington Gale.

"The college really didn't want to lose this story," Muelder said recently standing outside Old Main, the last surviving building that served as a site in the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates that took place across the state in 1858 during their race for the U.S. Senate. "We're very proud of it. We were on the right side of history."

And it's not going too far to say they helped get Lincoln on the right side of history as well.

It all grows out of Gale, a New York abolitionist who set out to create a planned community in Illinois in the 1830s. Unlike other utopians of the era (see Edmund Wilson's "To the Finland Station" for the tragic stories of several  dreamers), Gale had a practical idea that made sense: buy land, set up a college at the center (in part to train missionaries for the West), attract settlers by promising them education at the college, and then use the vitality of the college to attract more settlers in a self-sustaining economic ecosystem.

The process, like all idealistic processes, was never quite that smooth, but the fact remains that, in general, Gale's plan succeeded. Knox College and its surrounding town long ago had their religious fervor diluted, starting with the arrival of the railroad (the real one, not the Underground, according to "The WPA Guide to Illinois"), but today it remains a lovely and vital area, and at the time of the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate, on the raw, windy day of Oct. 7, it was a bastion of religious and, yes, racial idealism, what Muelder cites today as its "deep, rich abolitionist history."

The way Muelder tells it, Lincoln poked Douglas pretty good in their second debate in upstate Freeport. "Lincoln put Douglas in a box," he said, trapping him with logic. Douglas backed what was then known as popular sovereignty, allowing western territories self-determination on the issue of slavery, but Lincoln, who sought at very least to prevent the spread of slavery from the South, pointed out the recent Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court had forbidden a ban on slavery in the territories. How did Douglas reconcile that?

Muelder paraphrased Lincoln as saying: "Don't hand me this line that the people out there can settle it. It's already been settled."

Well, Douglas stood by his notion of popular sovereignty, but in the process immediately alienated Southern Democrats, who weren't about to cede their hard-won gains in the high court and soon splintered off and cost Douglas the election when he and Lincoln met again on the national stage two years later in the 1860 presidential campaign.

After Douglas held serve on something of a home court in downstate Jonesboro in their third debate, he bloodied Lincoln pretty good in their fourth meeting in Charleston. Indulging in what we'd clearly see as race-baiting today, he goaded Lincoln into defending just how equal he believed the races to be, and Lincoln said some unfortunate things that would sound more fitting coming out of the mouth of President Trump.

Which brings them to Galesburg, a hospitable site for Lincoln with a huge crowd largely receptive to his stated ideals. In fact, the crowd was so large and the stage outside Old Main so packed, including a massive table, Lincoln and Douglas had to climb out the window to get there. Lincoln showed how at ease he was by cracking, "Now I can say I've been through college."

Comfortable with the sympathetic crowd, Lincoln took the offensive on the key issue of slavery. "Galesburg is the first place where he really talks about it being immoral," Muelder said. And while it's true Lincoln had taken on the morality of slavery before, he pounded the point home in the Galesburg debate.

"Almost all Lincoln historians agree that it's here he really found his legs for the first time, and he does it by hitting this theme of immorality," Muelder said.

"He'd never really hit this moral theme so hard before," he added. "It worked so well that he goes to Quincy and runs with it, does the same at the Alton debate." And, while Lincoln lost the Senate race to Douglas in a vote in the General Assembly (historians generally grant that he would have won a popular vote), he published transcripts of the debates, which circulated nationwide and built his reputation, resulting in him becoming the Republican nominee in 1860 and the 16th president.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas squared off in a series of seven historic debates in their 1858 U.S. Senate race.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas squared off in a series of seven historic debates in their 1858 U.S. Senate race.

Muelder talks eloquently about all this, but he granted that as a historian he was a late bloomer. He came from a family of Galesburg academics, graduated from Knox and earned his master's in history from Miami of Ohio, but upon his return to Knox he made his career as an administrator, eventually heading the alumni office. So he can talk equally well about Knox's heritage as a writer's college, including S.S. McClure, founder of the muckraking turn-of-the-century magazine McClure's, Edgar Lee Masters, lawyer-poet author of the "Spoon River Anthology," and humorists Eugene Field (whose father actually represented Scott in the landmark court case) and Don Marquis, creator of Archy the Cockroach, the reincarnated vers libre poet who sometimes "wrote" his newspaper columns, later collected as "Archy and Mehitabel," with art by George Herriman of "Krazy Kat" fame.

Galesburg's favorite son, Carl Sandburg, actually graduated from neighboring Lombard College, Muelder allowed, but that was folded into Knox after it failed in the Great Depression, and Sandburg embraced it enough to head Knox's 100th anniversary festivities of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1958.

Yet upon what was supposed to be his retirement in 2004, Muelder was put in charge of what was to become the Underground Railroad Center, touting Knox's ties to the area's history in helping runaway slaves to freedom.

"My life changed remarkably," Muelder said. "All of this kind of snowballed, and I'm the guy they keep around to talk about it."

It reawakened his historical training. "One of the things that's tricky about being an Underground Railroad historian is it was so secretive," Muelder said. "After the war, a lot of people didn't want to talk about it. They didn't want to keep records on it. So it's a very tough subject to research.

"The people who were probably best at it kept it secret," he added. "There'll be rumors and stories, but the verification!"

Myth tends to blend with fact. Muelder said he's always suspicious of discovered tunnels being cited as part of the Underground Railroad, because plenty of places had root cellars for storage or tunnels for additional access. Slave quilts in patterns supposedly used as maps, he added, are likewise a myth that's been "debunked."

Other threads proved authentic, however, such as the story of Owen Lovejoy, brother of martyred abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy, murdered by a mob in Alton in 1837. Owen Lovejoy settled in Princeton and became one of the few famous operators of an Underground Railroad station. Likewise William J. Phelps, whose barn in Peoria County had a cross shape cut in the eastern gable. He'd place a lantern in the loft to signal when it was safe to pass through the area. A photo of the barn served as the cover for Mueller's 2008 book "The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois."

(McFarland & Company)

(McFarland & Company)

Best of all was the Rev. Samuel Wright of western Stark County. "He kept a diary," Muelder literally whispered. "It's a real piece of gold." Muelder added that he has a historian colleague at the University of Maryland who considers it one of the top discoveries in the field.

Muelder turned his research into his book on the Underground Railroad in western Illinois and followed that with another book on noted abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, who exerted a powerful influence on Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Now Muelder serves as director of the Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Station at Knox, which is more of a research center than a museum of exhibits, although it does include a slave block, a memorial table to escaped slave Susan Richardson, and maps of Underground Railroad routes and stations in Illinois. It's located just across the street from Old Main in what's called the Old Jail, which once did serve as the area's jailhouse.

Muelder joked that he can now say he spends his days in jail, where it would appear he is quite content to be locked up with the "deep, rich abolitionist history" of Galesburg and Knox College.