By Don Radebaugh — It’s not often that I get to sit in a chair that Abraham Lincoln sat in; in fact, come to think of it, this would be a first for me. I did my best to capture the moment, but with just a few seconds to work with, I needed the photo to stop time. It was surreal for me, hence the goofy look on my face; but man oh man was it powerful for a history geek like me. I could have sat there all day in reflection and contemplation.
It happened on the campus of Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois on my way to Galena, Illinois. By the way, the campus at Knox College is beautiful and well worth the visit.
The velvet red chair that Lincoln sat in is inside Old Main, which is the centerpiece of Knox College. Built in 1857, it was the site of a critical senatorial debate between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the fifth in a series of seven famous debates between the two political rivals.
Just next to the chair is the window that Lincoln walked through and out onto the platform for the debate.
Lincoln, who had less than a year total of formal education, was reported in the local paper to have said, as he was crawling through the window, “At last I have gone through college.” Lincoln was very quick-witted and had an incredible sense of humor. When someone once charged him with being two-faced, Lincoln quickly remarked, “If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”
With a crowd of about 10,000 gathered in and around the courtyard, Lincoln and Douglas debated at Knox College on October 7, 1858 during the campaign for U.S. Senate. It was here that Lincoln began to shift the debates toward the moral issue of slavery, attempting to tap into the moral soul of the nation and rally those around him who thought slavery to be a moral wrong.
Douglas thought, as new western territories and emerging states came to be, that the local settlers should decide for themselves (Popular Sovereignty) if slavery should be permitted or not.
Lincoln said that day, “I belong to that class who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil.” In reference to Douglas, Lincoln also said, “He is blowing out the moral lights around us when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them.”
While Knox College was more sympathetic to Lincoln’s cause over Douglas’s — the college was founded by abolitionists — Lincoln lost the senatorial race to Douglas in 1858, his second loss running for the U.S. Senate. However, he won the bigger prize two years later when he was elected President of the United States as the country’s first Republican President. Despite losing the senate race, the debates garnered Lincoln national attention which no doubt put him on a bigger stage that ultimately led to the White House in 1861.
I’m not the only one who wants to sit in the chair. Presidents Clinton and Obama also took time to sit in the famous chair at Knox College, as have dozens of celebrities over the years.
From there, I wandered over to the beautiful library on campus and spent some time in the archives. I had to fill out and sign papers for the opportunity to go through just a small portion of what’s there. One could spend a lifetime sifting through, studying and researching the information. I wandered through some of Edgar Lee Masters’ letters, which was fascinating. Masters (1868 – 1950) is regarded as one of Illinois’ great Prairie Poets — his masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology. Masters attended Knox College for one year in 1890, and family members who live in the area have donated a great deal of original artifacts from Masters’ life.
And of course I couldn’t help but ask if they had any Lincoln stuff. The archivist on duty disappeared for about 10 minutes while I went through one of Masters’ files. When she returned, she laid before me an original note from, and signed by Abraham Lincoln. This was a very good day.
Special thanks to the great staff at Knox College for all their assistance.
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