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Exhibit Opens Window to the Past

By Peter Bailley '74

Thanks to Knox College's preservation of Old Main, we can stand where Lincoln and Douglas stood -- at the only building that remains from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Now, thanks to the students in Assistant Professor of History Catherine Denial's class in Public History, we can also stand with, and learn from, a few of the average citizens who attended the debate in Galesburg exactly 150 years ago.

Over winter term 2008, 16 Public History students built a nearly life-size replica of the debate site at Old Main. Thirty-feet-wide and seven-feet-tall, the model represents part of the east wall of Old Main, including the window through which the debaters and other local dignitaries climbed, because the debate platform had blocked the opening of the east doors.

It was displayed in March in the Ford Center for Fine Arts. It will be set up again in October for the Lincoln Colloquium on October 11 and again for Knox's Homecoming Weekend, October 31?November 1.

The students have done more than recreate a place. Deliberately bypassing the famous debaters, they recreated a cross-section of the crowd that day. Whether the audience in Galesburg was really between 10,000 and 20,000, it is generally believed to have been the largest at any of the seven debates, which were as much entertainment as politics.

"Most people in the audience couldn't vote in the election," Denial explains. "But it didn't matter whether you voted, or even whether you heard the debaters, which many in the crowd did not, given the inclement weather that day. Just showing up for the debate was your political action."

Each student researched and wrote a package of background information on a particular person who might have attended the debate. "Some of the characters are based on historical persons, such as a wealthy local landowner," said David Nolan '09. "Some are composites, such as a Knox student who came from a farm in Iowa."

Studying public attitudes of the 1850s, "we definitely got an idea of what people were like," said Dwight Glinsmann '08. Sometimes it was "disconcerting and unnerving," Glinsmann said, to discover that attitudes that are seen as unenlightened today were so prevalent in the 1850s that almost nobody challenged them.

Immigrants were widely despised in 19th-century America. "There were prayers of thanksgiving offered in Galesburg when the Irish Catholic Church was blown down in a storm," Glinsmann said. And the same abolitionists who opposed slavery also were opposed to civil rights for blacks. Student Solomon Williams '09 -- portraying a freed slave who would have faced widespread discrimination even in anti-slavery Illinois -- said that on the issue of race, Galesburg was different.

"When slaves escaped from Missouri into Illinois, a lot of people in Illinois didn't want them around," Williams said. "What was most surprising was that Galesburg was so tolerant, while the rest of Illinois wasn't."

Even though Knox was open to both black and women students, for much of the 19th century women were channeled into a separate curriculum. "You want to think, 'Knox is accepting women -- Yay!' But women were meant to be missionary wives, and their classes were different," said Ann McWilliams- Piraino '08. "They took science, too, so there were inklings of progress."

Borrowing costumes from the Knox theatre department and the local Prairie Players Civic Theatre, the students dressed as the characters they had researched. At the exhibit, the students conversed in character with visitors, who also could view documents displayed on the exhibit walls.

"We looked at effective ways to communicate history," Nolan said. "One of the ways to make history come alive is to interact with the audience that comes to the exhibit."

What Old Main already offered as a National Historic Site -- a "living instrument," in the words of Carl Sandburg -- Knox has now enhanced with a living human context for the historic debate.