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THE GREAT DEBATE; or, THE PROPHET ON THE
REV. JENKIN LLOYD JONES
ENTRAL Illinois, seventy-eight years ago, represented,
Cin the main, an unstaked and untracked wild. Its com
bination of prairie and forest, its broad stretches of waving, wild grass, were rimmed by ferny glens and brush-protected creeks. The great forests yielded logs and rails for the pioneer fences and cabins, and their branches sheltered the partridges, quail, raccoons, opossums, and deer that fed the pioneer and his family while he was hurrying the hominy and beans that would meet the game on the table, making the fare of the pioneer toothsome as well as wholesome, varied as well as vigorous.
Into this wild country a tall, unkempt stripling drove the four-ox team that carried his father and step-mother, stepbrothers, sisters, and cousin, with their simple household equipment, out of Indiana into Illinois. He had scarcely reached his majority. He tarried with the family long enough to help house his aging parents, and then, with the characteristic independence of the true American lad, struck out for himself; for at twenty-one the true pioneer youth accepted the responsibilities of life, became responsible for his own bed, board, and clothing, literally became the architect of his own fortune. In these pioneer days the true American parent recognized the boy's right to his time-come twenty-one-and, without any sickly distrust or sentimental regret, gave him his dollar and said to him, "Your time is your own; the world is before you; go seek your destiny."
Thus it was, a few months after the arrival with the oxteam and the hand-made wagon, shaped out of the sycamore, hickory, and oak of Indiana by the deft hand of Thomas
Lincoln, the father carpenter, that the bare-footed stripling, trousered in buckskin and capped with coonskin, struck out for himself, and, in the adjoining counties of Macon and Sangamon, entered upon that great career that is the most picturesque as well as the most profoundly significant story in American history. It is a story as charming as it is inspiring, as poetic as it is profound. It is the story of the Odysseus of the Western World. The material pegs upon which this story is hung are those of chopper, flatboatman, storekeeper, postmaster, Captain of militia, surveyor, legislator, lawyer, President, martyr.
The more inward traces of the early parts of this great journey from the log cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky to the President's chair-the President of a distracted people, the Commander-in-Chief of the noblest army that was ever marshalled on this footstool of the Eternal, the martyred emancipator, who, by the stroke of his pen, enabled four million slaves to stand up as freemen, and made human slavery in these United States under sanction of the law impossible forever more, making at last the boast of our Republic realare those that point to the tireless student, the matchless storyteller, the sad humorist of the Sangamon and the invincible lawyer on the circuit.
Twenty-eight years after, this driver of oxen, whose efficient weapons were only the ox-goad, the axe, and the oar, took the leading part in a great intellectual joust, a tourney of intellect, a memorable political debate. Of this I would speak this morning, on the centennial anniversary of his birthday.
Abe Lincoln, the ox-driver, was easily the champion wrestler when he entered Illinois. His long arms, sinewed with steel, his giant legs, framed as of iron, were more than a match for whoever dared grapple with him. When, twenty-eight years afterwards, Abraham Lincoln came to try his strength in the great intellectual wrestling match of history, he was to clinch a veritable giant of intellect, an adept on the platform, and a master of that great tester of brain which we call the American Stump.
The details of that story are not for me to tell; they should
be told by some competent eye and ear witness. It was not only a battle of giants, but it was a testing ground of truth, a sifting mill of the Almighty, whereby dark problems were beaten into clear, holy issues forced to the front, and the banners of progress borne forward by virtue of the mistakes and the crudities, the fallacies as well as the truths, then enunciated.
The contestants were mortal; many of the arguments were temporal and transitory; but immortal justice broke through the subterfuges and the sophistries, the passing passion, the unworthy ambition, and the flippant applause that so filled the foreground of those days that the grim but sublime figures of Truth and Right in the background were so obscured that, at the end of fifty years, we are just beginning to see through the dust and to distinguish between the passing, and the permanent notes, in the boisterous turmoil.
The great debate began at Ottawa, August 31, and closed at Alton, October 15, 1858. Seven times was the trumpet blown, summoning the giants to battle; seven times did vast multitudes of feverish, distracted, perplexed voters seek to champion their chosen leaders; others, perhaps the majority, sought for light, hoping for some solution of the great perplexity.
This battle of giants in Illinois fifty years ago, represents one great climacteric in the history of the United States. There democracy was fought to a finish, so far as two mighty men could fight it, on the true battle field of democracy-the political stump. Here was waged the war of the new regime, with ballots not bullets-for weapons. The parry and thrust in this contest were with wit and not with bayonets; here blood flowed freely indeed, but through unsevered arteries; the red currents tided with increasing potency through enkindled brains and flaming hearts.
We turn the pages of history in vain to find anything comparable with the popular enthusiasm, the civic awakening, the political revival, which culminated in the great debate between Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in Illinois in 1858.
Draw a line from the prophetic heights upon which stood the great reformers of Jewry in the eighth century B. C.Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Isaiah-to the peaks of prophecy whereon stood the rail-splitter of Illinois in the nineteenth century of the Christian era, and there is no leader in civic agitation, no champion of just government, high enactments, and progressive legislation, whose head rises to break the line.
I am not unmindful of the political revolutions that followed in the wake of Benedict, Charlemagne, Luther, and Cromwell; I am not speaking of the saintliness and spiritual clearness reached by individual souls, such as Socrates, Paul, St. Francis, Fox, Channing, and their fellows. What I mean to say is, that from Amos and Isaiah to Abraham Lincoln and his fellows, no political issue, no legislative problem, was found so ethical-none was so freighted with principle, so identified with the cause of justice and progress-as that beaten out and brought to the high issues of popular suffrage by the great debate, the semi-centennial of which was celebrated with fitting pomp, oratory, and song in the State of Illinois last 'Autumn.
The cause of freedom, the rights of races and religions, were often challenged in the intervening centuries, and such causes have always found inspired spokesmen; but in such crises the appeal, for the most part, was made to crowned heads; the fate of justice was in the hands of an aristocracy, either civic or ecclesiastic. Such appeals, for the most part, were to dukes or to bishops, convocations of priests or of nobles. But this appeal was to the people, the common people; the question was submitted, not to the decision of clerics or of warriors, but to voters.
We talk of "the War of '61 to '65," and, at this distance, the younger men and women may think of it as a clap of thunder out of a clear sky, an unexpected cloud-burst in the heavens that were otherwise serene. Not so. One of the latest and most philosophic studies of the great conflict is entitled "The American Ten Years' War, from 1855 to 1865." This author, Denton J. Snyder, finds the beginning of the conflict at least as far back as the first invasion of Kansas by five