- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2008

FREEPORT, Ill. | This is the “Pretzel City,” thanks to German bakers who settled here in the 1850s. It’s appropriate, given the way a lightweight named Abraham Lincoln twisted up a political colossus here and began cementing his place in American myth.

Lincoln, a long-shot candidate for U.S. Senate, debated Stephen A. Douglas on the edge of the rolling northwestern Illinois hills 150 years ago this month, halting the Little Giant’s march to the White House and opening its door for the Railsplitter from Springfield.

The “Freeport Doctrine” that Douglas espoused on Aug. 27, 1858 - that states and territories could ban slavery despite a Supreme Court ruling suggesting otherwise - was not a new idea with Douglas, who beat Lincoln and returned to Congress.

But Lincoln forced Douglas to record it for a national audience, solidifying slaveholders’ opposition and splitting the Democrats. Add Lincoln’s stellar and unexpected performance in seven matchups across Illinois that fall and influential eastern Republicans were convinced that Lincoln should be their man for president in 1860.

Now, as another U.S. senator from Illinois admired for his oratorical polish - Sen. Barack Obama - shoots for the presidency, Illinois is marking Lincoln’s rise to the national stage with a sesquicentennial commemoration of the David-and-Goliath showdowns.

The festivities will take Lincoln and Douglas re-enactors to each debate site starting this month, with storytellers, parades, and dancing at period balls.

The debates played a role in “determining who we are as a people today,” said Edward Finch, a retired Freeport schoolteacher and chairman of “Reunion Tour ‘08,” the statewide celebration.

Freeport certainly has never forgotten. The flavor that topped a local ice cream parlor’s contest for a commemorative confection? “Lickin’ Douglas.”

Slavery was the focus of the debates at Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy and Alton. But underlying that incendiary theme was the ultimate question of democracy’s purpose - whether it’s about majority rule or right and wrong, said Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College, author of “Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America.”

“Americans regard democracy as something more transcendent, something more sacred than just counting noses,” Mr. Guelzo said. “Americans at base want to know that their politics is about what is right. And if a majority wants to do what is wrong, people just don’t roll over.”

Douglas wanted to push permission for slavery out of Congress and let states decide. To Lincoln, slavery itself was the issue. Blacks were people, not property.

Lincoln wasn’t alone in that belief, but it was radical to give it a national voice.

“Just that very basic principle of recognizing the humanity of blacks was huge,” Illinois state historian Thomas Schwartz said.

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