The Senatorial Contest in Illinois in 1858- Recollections of J.K. Magic.
The first time I ever saw Mr. Lincoln was at the first joint debate between him and Mr. Douglas at Ottawa. I traveled over 100 miles to attend that debate. Mr. Douglas spoke first, occupying one hour. Mr. Lincoln followed in a speech of an hour and a half, and Mr. Douglas closed in half an hour. It was in August, 1858. The Legislature to be chosen that year would be endowed with the choice of a United States Senator, and those two gentlemen were candidates for that position. A leading question was, whether Mr. Lincoln was in favor of the unconditional repeal of the Fugitive Slave law, as proposed in the resolutions. Mr. Lincoln at that time was not aware of the mortifying mistake that Mr. Douglas had fallen into as to the time and place of the passage of the resolutions, and when he came to speak he declined to answer the interrogatories of Mr. Douglas, saying that he refused to be catechized by Mr. Douglas on fine points until Mr. Douglas would first agree with him to answer question for question. There was an immense concourse of people at this debate. It was held in the open air, and the day was especially mild and pleasant. The best shorthand reporters were present, and the speeches were published the next day in the Chicago papers. At first the Democrats made much of MR. Lincoln’s refusal to answer the questions of Mr. Douglas but it was not long before it was discovered that Mr. Douglas had made a terrible mistake in connecting Mr. Lincoln with the radical resolutions which he had quoted, and then the Republican papers teemed with charges of “bold and deliberate forgery,” “unparalleled mendacity,” etc.
At the close of the meeting the partisans of each champion were wild in their demonstrations of enthusiasm over the victory that each had won. The Republicans hoisted Sir. Lincoln upon their shoulders and carried him in this manner nearly half a mile to the house of a Republican friend, he begging, in the meantime, to be let down, saying it was the most ridiculous position that he had even found himself in in his life. And indeed it was. His head and body could be seen above the surging mass, and his countenance bore an expression of real humiliation. The Democratic paper used this incident to announce that Mr. Lincoln had been so completely used up that his legs refused to support his body, and his friends were obliged to carry him off the ground.
At the house of this Republican friend I was introduced to Mr. Lincoln and had a short conversation with him. His next appointment to speak was over in Macomb, in my district, and I agreed to meet him at a certain point on the following Tuesday and proceed with him to the place of meeting. On our way to this meeting we stopped together at a hotel in a small village and remained over night. Mr. Lincoln’s room was just across the hall from that occupied by a certain distinguished editor of the Chicago daily in this State and myself. That same evening Mr. Lincoln came into our room and told us that he had concluded to answer all the questions of Mr. Douglas, fairly and squarely, at their next debate, which would take place at Freeport on Friday of that week, and that then he would propound the same number of questions to Mr. Douglas, and trust to his fairness to answer them. He read over those questions to us, and asked what we thought of them. My editor friend (of The CHICAGO TRIBUNE) thought one of the questions a little dangerous, and suggested how Douglas might answer it, affording him an opportunity of conciliating Free-Soil Democrats without losing the more Pro-Slavery Democrats. This dangerous question read as follows:
“Can the people of the United States Territory in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?”
The importance and significance of this question may be better understood by some reference to the peculiar attitude to slavery in the Territories assumed by Mr. Douglas at that time. The position of Mr. Douglas was that the people of the Territory should have the right to vote slavery up or vote it down, as suited them best. This view of the subject was quite popular with a large class of the people, and it seemed to be the effort of Mr. Douglas to admit of no modification or qualification of the simple proposition that slavery might be voted up or down, as the people of the Territory might choose.
The Dred Scott decision had been promulgated, out of which Pro-Slavery Democrats drew much comfort. Mr. Douglas had eulogized this decision as eminently fair and proper. The logical deduction from this decision was that slavery existed in the Territories by virtue of the Constitution, and, if so, the people could not vote down the Constitution or a constitutional right. Mr. Douglas had refused thus far to debate this phase of the subject, and the question of Mr. Lincoln was calculated to bring him to a more detailed explanation of his views. It was suggested by the editor of THE TRIBUNE that Douglas would escape a direct issue by assuming that without legislation slavery would be worth nothing in a Territory, and if the people were opposed to slavery they would refuse to pass police laws regulating or protecting it. Douglas did take this precise stance, and here arose the doctrine of “unfriendly legislation” first suggested my Mr. Douglas, and which effectually killed him a Democratic candidate for the Presidency.
Mr. Lincoln recognized the tocsin of the suggestion made, and said: “Let it be so. If Mr. Douglas, by this answer, succeeds in being elected Senator, he just as surely succeeds in detracting himself for the Presidency, and splitting the Democratic party and securing the election of a Republican President in 1860.” The sagacity of Mr. Lincoln was thoroughly vindicated, little did he think, however, that his question, so adroitly framed and pressed home upon Mr. Douglas, involving as it did his own detour as Senator, would ultimate in his own election as President and in the utter extinction of slavery in this country. When I look back to the time and place that Mr. Lincoln wrote out those questions for Mr. Douglas, I feel that then and there can be seen the pivot upon which the destiny of this Republic turned. A more selfish and time-serving man than Mr. Lincoln would have made his question serve himself, regardless of his cause, but Mr. Lincoln served his cause regardless of himself.
It was not until after the defeat of Mr. Lincoln for the Senatorship that he was publicly mentioned as a possible candidate for the Presidency in 1860. For my own part he became my candidate for that office even before hi defeat for the Senatorship. I can remember many incidents, some of them of an amusing character, in the light of subsequent events, growing out of my partiality for Mr. Lincoln as a Presidential candidate. I was visiting an Eastern State and, meeting an old acquaintance, he asked my opinion concerning political prospects and Presidential candidates. I took occasion to remark that I thought Abraham Lincoln stood as good a chance for the Presidency as any other man. My friend had never heard of the man and before I left that neighborhood I learned how I had been laughed at for my zeal in behalf of a backwards lawyer in my locality. I owned a newspaper in 1857 which I sold, but the trade was almost spoiled because I had the name of Lincoln as the must-head for President. I could name several prominent politicians of that day in this State who sneered at the idea of Lincoln for President. The fact is, thus it was the people more than the politicians who made Lincoln President. It was impossible to resist the “Lincoln boom,” and when the fact became palpable there was a general tumble among the politicians in the same direction.