Yellow Journalism on the Prairie: Illinois Ablaze Amid the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in a Political Fire Flamed by the Ink of Partisan Newsprint

written June 2009

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 are generally perceived and beheld as a series of seven oratory contests between two Illinois men of renown, the prize being a United States Senate seat. The historical record of the events, however, in the form divisive newspaper reports and editorials, theoretically expanded the field to that of four figurative men. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, as the Democratic incumbent, railed for states’ rights as it concerned the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Of the fifth debate in Galesburg, Illinois on October 7th, the Chicago Times depicted “the Little Giant” as an “illustrious visitor” (Sparks, 380) to the western railroad town, while Quincy’s Daily Whig noted the same Douglas “foamed at the mouth” with “the saliva of incipient madness” (Sparks, 385). Abraham Lincoln, a decade removed from one term in the House of Representatives, was hailed the same day by multitudes of banners such as “Abraham Lincoln the Champion of Freedom” (Sparks, 374), while the Chicago Times regarded Lincoln as “lamentably weak” and “the most abject picture of wretchedness we have ever witnessed” (Sparks, 381-382).

During the first debate in August at Freeport, Lincoln stated, “Public sentiment is everything… he who holds public sentiment is greater than he who makes statues” (Lincoln, 1). Case in point, newspapers of the mid-nineteenth century were much more to their Illinois communities than simple, passive purveyors of fact and occurrence. They actively and openly molded sentiment and formed statues that to this day impact and distract from our understanding of the debates. News-sheets of 1850s Illinois were often civil antagonists, intent on an ideological bent decades before the infamous “yellow journalism” of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. An exact and impartial record of these debates may be forever lost, yet the passionate and biased articles left by editors, stenographers, and transcribers, give historians a clearer picture into antebellum media ethics and tactics, as well as a clue as to the nature, function, and importance of media outlets to their home readers. The Galesburg debate serves to effectively measure the chasm of disparity in what later appeared in various newsprints.

The role of politics and its stature within Illinois communities during this era cannot be overstated. Holzer relates, “The pulse of politics and the heartbeat of community life throbbed as one; election fever was a year-round malady” (5). Part mode of creating solidarity with like-minded people, part non-violent, intellectual combat that raised and released tensions, and part recreation, frontier Illinois eagerly soaked up the goings-on of the day and had equally strong opinions. The newspapers for their part served to provide a media outlet to those of like minds, but being partisan was also good for business, as the “press depended on political organizations to survive” (Holzer, 7). Backing by local party branches ensured subscriptions, advertising, and a certainty of revenue. Most large Illinois communities supplied two newspapers that viscously assaulting the other. Two of Chicago’s top rivals was the Democratic, Douglas-supporting Daily Times, while the Daily Press and Tribune backed Lincoln’s new Republicanism. In Illinois, as around the country, showing your allegiance to a party or political philosophy in the age “before campaign buttons, was by the newspaper you carried and read” (Holzer, 8).

This sentiment was perhaps never truer than during the late 1850s, as the pot of ‘state’s rights versus the expansion and morality of slavery’ was boiling over. Into this enthusiastically acidic atmosphere stepped Lincoln in July of 1858, by responding in Chicago to remarks recently made by Douglas. Newspapers quickly took note, as did their readers. On July 22nd the Chicago Daily Press proposed a joint venture: “Let Mr. Douglas and Mr. Lincoln agree to canvas the State together, in the old western style” (Holzer, 3). The crowds and clamor rose as Lincoln and Douglas crisscrossed Illinois from Ottawa to Freeport, on to Jonesboro and then Charleston. This simple race for Senate had begun to take on larger meaning for the state and the nation as America watched the titanic issue of the age being grappled with. The Richmond Enquirer suggested they were witness to “the great battle of the next Presidential election” (Holzer, 2).

Stephen Douglas was the first to arrive in Galesburg, at ten o’clock, by train. Ofthis fact, at least, the newspapers can agree on. The Times would report the station “overflowing with Democrats from the western part of the country, and very few abolitionists” (Sparks, 383). The mention of the lack of Abolitionists, or the supposedly poor turnout of them, would be a common theme running throughout the event, no doubt very much pleasing and relieving the Timesreaders.

Galesburg, founded by the Presbyterian minister George Washington Gale from New York in 1835, was home to the first anti-slavery society in the state, begun only two years later. The town and surrounding areas were also stops along the Underground Railroad. Not letting this fact go unchecked, the Douglas-supporting Missouri Republican admonished the Abolitionists, or “Black Republicans” for a “secret circular” to drum up attendance that had presumably failed, leaving them “crest-fallen” and “weakened around the knees” (Sparks, 376). Lincoln newspapers for their part made numerous mentions to the debate in “Egypt” (Cairo) in which Lincoln made Douglas “drink milk.” The Daily Whigportrayed the Judge as “black and repulsive enough to turn all the milk in Egypt sour” (Sparks, 385).

Lincoln would arrive at noon from Knoxville, the reliable Chicago Press and Tribune noting “Long Abe” was “heralded by a long procession of citizens” with “a cavalcade of one hundred ladies and gentlemen on horseback” (Sparks, 378). The Chicago Times was cuttingly able to explain the sight as proof “the republicans has spared neither money nor pain…begging their people to be present.” TheMissouri Republican simply stated “Lincoln came from some place, to this depondent unknown” (Sparks, 377).

As is clear by these examples, newspapers tactics strove to support their candidate by relating inflated crowds for their man while minimizing or negating the opponent. The crowd size at Galesburg can only be estimated, with most now taking it to have been around 20,000 spectators- perhaps the largest crowd of any debate. The Times and the Missouri Republican both reported this number, and proclaimed a “two to one” Democratic majority. The Chicago Journal guessed only 10,000 people, two-thirds of them for Lincoln, even though the reporter freely stated being stuck on a moribund train outside of Galesburg during the speech, relating instead “the opinions of whose that did hear” (Sparks, 387-388). The Daily Whig asserted 12,000-15,000 were present, eighty-percent being Republicans (Sparks, 384). These articles’ emphasis on the number of adherents and their high levels of support or disdain further point to the emotional nature of the argument over a rational appeal. This was probably not lost on Lincoln, who at Galesburg began to move away from a lawyerly argument to that of moral principles and universal justice.

The final aspect of the day all newspapers were in agreement on was the frigid, gusting winds and generally miserable conditions. The elemental effects on Lincoln and Douglas as the reporters saw it, however, were mixed. When at about three o’clock the Judge was first introduced on the grounds of Knox College, theDaily Whig stated he received such a “faint cheer… that it caused universal laughter” (Sparks, 385). Again, the Daily Whig was more kind to “Old Abe” who we’re told “was received with three such tremendous cheers as made the welkin bell ring. His happy, good natured countenance [was] in such marked contrast with that of Douglas” (Sparks, 385). To contrast this sunny picture, Lincoln was “an old scare-crow looking individual,” that again “delivered himself of speeches suited to localities” according to the Times (Sparks, 384). Of the crowds themselves newspapers were as equally blunt. Unfavorable Lincoln supports were “dirt-poor, foreigners, and abolitionists,” while those that cheered on Douglas were called “Irish, drunk, or both” (Holzer, 8). A man at Galesburg attempted to co-opt Douglas’ own slander of Lincoln supporters with a sign reading, “Small-fisted Farmers, Mud-sills of Society, and Greasy Mechanics for A. Lincoln” (Holzer, 236).

The crucial matter of who won or lost the debate was front-paged as quickly as offices could receive information, yet this was forgone conclusion. It was only a matter of how much of a blow a newspaper’s preferred jouster had heroically struck or horribly missed. The Freeport Weekly Journal weighed in with “A Good Hit”:

“At Galesburg, Douglas repeated his state nonsense concerning the Declaration of Independence, declaring that it never was intended to include “a n—-,” as entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Lincoln replied to him that neither Washington, Jefferson, or any President, any member of Congress, or any living man, ever took that position until the present policy of the Democratic party in regard to slavery, and to invent that affirmation” (Sheetz, 1).

These reports ran in tandem with, and bracketed, transcripts of the debate speeches as prepared by eye-witness stenographers (Holzer, 9). These introductions to the speeches, as have been discussed, commenting on crowds, cheers, banners, and general support, were designed in reality as conclusions, striving to convince readers of Lincoln’s and Douglas’ validity long before ever reading their actual arguments. The Times lead with “Lincoln Again Defeated” then characterizing him as “nervous and trembling” as he climbed the stand (Sparks, 380, 382). The paper, finally the partisan stage set, entreated its audience to read the texts in full, the Times hopeful “that they will be carefully read by both our friends and opponents. We now proceed to give a correct and faithful report of both parties” (Sparks, 382).

The speech texts themselves were also often quite different, depending on the paper’s political affiliation. As Holzer explains, the task of transcription was a hurried one, too rushed and immediate a job to consciously insert or delete. Rather, the changes occurred on the editors’ desks, often simple involving a sweetening and clarifying one speaker’s prose while leaving the other with all the original errors (Holzer, 10). The effect, as planned, was an Illinois public that became further ideologically divided and certain, a toxic frontier environment for a populace already addled.

Newspapers were well aware of these inconsistencies. Bloomington’s Daily Pantagraph brought to the public’s attention the findings of a study by the Galesburg Democrat. It compared its coverage with that of the Chicago Timeshandling of Lincoln’s speech, with the Galesburg editor finding the discrepancies “number ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY [sic]” (Foote, 1). The Chicago Tribunealso related shock of the rival Time’s Galesburg coverage of Lincoln, leaving him “shameful and outrageously garbled… The scamp Douglas hires to report Lincoln’s speeches would be a ripe subject for the penitentiary” (Holzer, 14). TheTimes rejoined this post-Galesburg battle with:

“We do not attempt, much, to fix up the bungling effort [of Lincoln]; that is not our business. Lincoln should have learned, before this, to “rake after” himself” (Holzer, 13).

The debaters themselves eventually weighed in on the issue of imbalanced journalism concerning the debates. Lincoln mentioned his believing Douglas might have “hired two reporters” that purposely “revised their manuscripts before they went to press” (Holzer, 14). Douglas mentions the Galesburg debate in particular for their “storms and boisterous weather” that might have made it “impossible for reporters to hear distinctly and report literally.” The raw conditions of Galesburg that day may imbibe this with some truth. Yet Douglas later admitted that some reporting, including positives about himself, was “imperfect and in some respects erroneous” (Holzer, 15).

The legacy of the Lincoln-Douglas debates is now far from the initial aspirations of its participants, attendants, or recorders. Stephen Douglas claimed the Senate seat vied for, thus perhaps winning the debates in the short term, yet in the long-term Abraham Lincoln gained national fame as a result of these matches, which would aid in propelling him into the White House- and past Democratic presidential candidate Senator Douglas- in 1860. Such ironies now make who exactly “won” the debate a moot point- the interest is in the event itself and more importantly its cultural impact on wider America. This critical juncture in Illinois history now resides far from the nastiness of the moment, such as the New York Herald’s opinion, which dismissed the debates as having “degenerated into the merest twaddle upon quibbles” (Holzer, 237). Rather, it is now a revered moment in American history, renowned for its unique clash over the most elemental concepts of rights and freedoms. The memory of the pomp and pageantry at each stop as faded; the side speeches and presentations of gifts have been forgotten. Both the cheers and hisses are silent. The Galesburg debate of October 7, 1958, as with the other six encounters, is remembered for the two Illinois statesmen themselves who met there and openly challenged American conceptions and beliefs. Yet those at Old Main of Knox College numbered only 20,000, while an entire state waited to discover the latest Lincoln parry or Douglas thrust. Stenographers, editors, and reporters, caught amidst the frenzy of the climate and the journalistic ethics of the day, presented for ready consumption a highly charged, perilous world of electric certainties and absolutes. At the verging of perhaps the greatest crisis in America’s history Illinois newspapers, as a result of and a further encouraging of community fervor, certainly played their part to stir the pot. This heated method of reporting offers us an emotional window in which to view the era that, ironically, objective journalism might not have captured. We are then left to discover other, more moderate voices, in personal diaries and correspondences. Most of the grandiose labels and viscous smears newspapers helped create and perpetuate have washed away from both Lincoln and Douglas- the four men have since become two again, yet the ill-formed statues newspapers molded must still be found and melted down. With a new awareness of the journalistic bias and hyperbole in which newspapers framed the debates and presented it as a matter of public and historical record, we are left to question their wider relevancy and impact. Armed with such caution and knowledge we can better reconstruct the historical debates of 1858.

Works Cited

Foote, William E. “180 Mutilations of Lincoln’s Speech.” The Daily Pantagraph. October 13, 1858.

Holzer, Harold, Abraham Lincoln, and Stephen Douglas. The Lincoln Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unabridged Texts. Fordham University Press, 2004.

Sparks, Edwin Erle, ed. “Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, Vol. III.” Lincoln Series: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Vol. 1. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1908.

Lincoln, Abraham. “Debate Address.” Freeport, Illinois. August 27, 1858.

Sheetz, H.M. “A Good Hit.” The Weekly Journal. October 14, 1858.

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