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Lincoln vs. Douglas: The reunion tour

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 19, 2008 - BEMENT, Ill.- Cowbells and campaign cheers rang out amid accusations of hypocrisy and distortion as two formidable politicians battled for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The scene had the trappings of any modern-day political campaign, but on this late July morning, the two men in the small Illinois town of Bement were actors commemorating the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.

This year, Illinois is commemorating the debates' 150th anniversary by recreating the prolific tour that paved Lincoln's path to the White House. The series will conclude with an event in Alton this October. Historians say the two men planned the debates in Bement, but never debated there.

The debates are just one part of the festivities as Illinois and the nation celebrate the legacy of Abraham Lincoln leading up to his 200th birthday on Feb. 12, 2009.

Organizers say they hope the events will make the nation's 16th president relevant once again to Americans.

Under Lincoln, the U.S. ended slavery and won the Civil War, but he is falling out of favor among Americans, said state historian Bryon Andreason. He said polls show Lincoln's popularity has slipped in recent years. In 1956, 62 percent of Americans said Lincoln was the greatest U.S. president; 50 years later, just 25 percent agreed.

Andreason said changing cultural values and a declining sense of national identity might help to explain why Lincoln's rags-to-riches story no longer resonates with Americans.

The events at each stop on the eight-city debate "reunion tour," as promoters call it, will be similar, but each community will add its historical importance to the day's celebration.

Instead of recreating the debates chapter and verse, organizers decided to hold a mock press conference during which Lincoln and his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, field questions from the public and the press. This allows the actors to relate the 1858 debates to present-day campaigns.

While the re-creation teaches new generations about Lincoln as a campaigner and president, it also highlights Douglas, the better-known politician at the time. Douglas was considered the greatest orator of his generation.

"After 150 years of playing second fiddle, I do have a few comments," Douglas, played by Tim Connor of Freeport, told the crowd in Bement.

Enthusiasts can now buy Lincoln bobblehead toys and other memorabilia. But the famous debates were, in fact, called the Douglas-Lincoln debates in 1858.

Douglas, a powerful politician in his own right, was Illinois' secretary of state at age 21. By the time he was 37, he had served as an Illinois Supreme Court justice, a U.S. representative and a U.S. senator.

Yet, history has relegated him to a less than worthy place over the years, Douglas complained.

"When it comes to being tossed on the dust heap of history, one can expect no justice," Douglas said.

The two actors remain true to the men they portrayed. Douglas, only 5 feet 4 inches tall, was known as the "Little Giant" because he was bombastic and a larger-than-life character. Lincoln, played by George Buss of Freeport, was quieter with the mannerisms of a trial lawyer and a voice that occasionally squeaked. 

The Alton event, held Oct. 19 and 20, will be a weekend-long celebration that will include a Segway-guided tour to Lincoln sites. The public is invited to a period dance, with instruction provided for dances that were popular in Lincoln's day, said Suzanne Halbrook of the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors  Bureau.

want to join the fun:

Ottawa - Aug. 22-23 

Freeport - Aug. 29-Sept. 1

Jonesboro - Sept. 12-14

Charleston - Sept. 20-21

Galesburg - Oct. 3-5

Quincy - Oct. 11-13

Alton - Oct. 17-19 

Go to www.enjoyillinois.com/LDR/index.html and click through the links to find what's happening at each place. Galesburg, for example, has its scarecrow festival that weekend, and most of the places offer a chance for dinner with the candidates.

Andrea Zimmermann is a freelance journalist based in Springfield, Ill. 

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