New Book on Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College publishes first-ever critical edition of debate texts

September 15, 2008

Lincoln Douglas Debate Book CoverScholars from the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College stood just a few feet from the site of one of the historic Lincoln-Douglas Debates at Knox's Old Main, to announce release of their new book, the first-ever critical edition of the debate texts.

"The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition," co-edited by Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson, is the first book to "provide readers with a full text of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, based on all known records, rather than following one or another of the partisan and sometimes widely-varying newspaper accounts," Wilson said, in a news release announcing the book on Friday, September 12. The news conference was held in the Alumni Room of Knox's Old Main, a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

"You're much closer, and more accurate, when you read our text, than when you read any previous text," Wilson said.

"Our new edition enables the 21st century reader to navigate the debates' sometimes unfamiliar territory through explanatory annotations, introductory material and a glossary of issues, persons and events," said Davis, who wrote the historical background material for each debate text.

A 'definitive edition of the debates'
"The work of the Lincoln Studies Center is emblematic of the longstanding institutional commitment that this school has to first-rate scholarship, not simply for the sake of scholarship, but on topics that serve larger purposes," said Lawrence B. Breitborde, Dean of the College and Vice President for Academic Affairs.

"Having a definitive edition of these debates -- one that explains their relevance 150 years ago and allows us to think of their particular application today -- is representative of the kind of scholarship that we encourage in faculty, and that faculty encourages in our students," Breitborde said at the news conference.

"It is the dream of every publisher to publish significant books. We like to believe that everything we publish is significant, but some books are very important... It is very difficult to think of a project that's more important for the University ofIllinoiss Press than a book like this," said Willis Regier, director of the University of Illinois Press, which published the book.

Critical praise for 'The Lincoln Douglas Debates'
"The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition" has gained praise in pre-publication reviews from Lincoln scholars.

"Davis and Wilson have created a fuller version of the debaters' words -- even down to the heckling of the crowds -- than has ever been available before," wrote Allen C. Guelzo, author of "Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America," in a pre-publication review.

"This is an outstanding achievement of meticulous scholarship, one of supreme importance," wrote David Zarefsky, author of "Lincoln, Douglas, and Slavery: In the Crucible of Public Debate." "This edition will serve as the standard reference work on the debates as well as the most accessible text for students and others encountering the debates for the first time."

"The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition" is the third volume in The Knox College Lincoln Studies Center Series at the University of Illinois Press. The series features original and new editions, and significant scholarly monographs, in the field of Lincoln studies. "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition" is available from the University of Illinois Press, the Knox College Bookstore, and on-line book retailers.

Resolving a different Lincoln-Douglas 'debate'
Knox College President Roger Taylor told the news conference that Davis and Wilson had also investigated another debate -- the question of exactly what window in Old Main had been used by the debaters to climb to the platform on the east side of the building on October 7, 1858.

"The platform had been set up across the street at Standish Park," Taylor said. "Because of the weather, they moved it around hurriedly to the south side of Old Main, [then] because of the wind, they moved it around to the east side of Old Main.

"When Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Enos Grant -- a professor of ancient languages at Knox College -- and other dignitaries, headed [through the building] to get on the debate platform, they got to the [east] door and found that it had been blocked by the platform.

"So, they went through the window. And when they got through the window, Abraham Lincoln was heard to say "At last I have gone through college." I have the privilege of sitting in that office where the window is, and looking through the window every day. And when visitors come to campus, I tell them that story. And if anyone looks at all skeptical, I say that I know the story is true because there's a sign (holds up plaque that was created in the 1950s, normally kept at the window). Well, they wouldn't have made a sign, if it had been some apocryphal, made-up story.

"Professors Davis and Wilson heard that I was using this sign as evidence of what Lincoln said. So last summer, they dispatched a research team to Seymour Library, to look for evidence that Lincoln had said that. And they summarized it very nicely in the hand-out that I have here -- that the folks who were there [at the debate in 1858] said that as he went through the window, Lincoln playfully said something like, 'At last I have gone through college,' or more likely, 'At last I have gone through Knox College.' "

Douglas Willson
Douglas Wilson, above, Rodney Davis, below
Rodney Davis

Willis Regier
Willis Regier, above, and Lawrence Breitborde, below, address the news conference.
Lawrence B. Breitborde
Roger Taylor, below, shows framed document displayed at the window in Old Main used by the debaters to climb to the platform in 1858.
Roger Taylor