Knox College's interest in Abraham Lincoln inevitably focuses on his United States senatorial campaign debates with Stephen Douglas, the fifth of which was held at Old Main in October 1858. Histrionics trumped history when Knox held its first debate celebration in the fall of 1896. The speakers' platform was built outside Old Main's prominent north front, rather than on the wind-sheltered east side, as it had been in 1858. Speakers included Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln.
"In 1900 a still more noteworthy celebration occurred when President McKinley and his Cabinet honored the occasion with their presence," recorded Martha Farnham Webster in her 1912 history of Knox, Seventy Five Significant Years. As in 1899, the photographic record of McKinley's remarks show the speakers' platform in front of Old Main.
Following yet another formal celebration in 1908, which featured remarks by William Howard Taft, at the time a candidate for the United States' Presidency, the first re-enactment appears to have been in 1928.
"We do not seek to reproduce literally the events of that past day," stated Knox President Albert Britt on October 5, 1928. "Lincoln and Douglas [were] two country lawyers wrangling on a rude platform for votes . . . . But we turn to their speeches to find the greatest statement of the issues that burned in men's minds."
Today, the College's interest in Lincoln and the Lincoln-Douglas Debates focuses on critical examination of all the historical factors that were in play during the race, which returned the incumbent Douglas to office, but vaulted Lincoln to national prominence and eventually the presidency in 1860.
"The great generalizations that people remember tend to distort what actually went on," said Rodney Davis, co-director with Douglas Wilson of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College. The first-ever critical edition of the debate texts, edited by Davis and Wilson, is currently scheduled for publication by the University of Illinois Press in 2008 -- the 150th anniversary of the debates.
Davis can recall four additional re-enactments since he came to Knox in 1963, the most elaborate a massive spectacle recorded by C-SPAN in 1994. And, even after he and Wilson complete their authoritative version of the debate texts, Davis is not sure anybody needs another re-enactment.
At three hours each, "the debates are way too long for contemporary audiences," Davis said. "Rather than re-enact the debates, let's seize on the nuggets, the sound bites" that accurately portray the politics, principles, and personalities of 150 years ago. Through their work at the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox, Davis and Wilson are enabling the people to have a better understanding of the debates and their place in history.