Recollection by Lew Wallace, Charleston Debate, September 18, 1858

Source citation
Lew Wallace, An Autobiography (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1906), 253-256.
Date Certainty
Adapted by Ben Lyman, Dickinson College
The following transcript has been adapted from An Autobiography (1906).

In the afternoon of the day of the fourth meeting of the disputants, I found myself in Charleston, Illinois, lost in a crowd assembled in a grove near that interesting little city. The platform for the speakers reminded me of an island barely visible in a restless sea—so great was the gathering. By good management I succeeded in getting standing-room close up in front of the platform.

Mr. Douglas was first to appear. It had not been my good-fortune to have had sight of him before; now I recognized him by his pictures, a short man with a deep chest, Websterian head, and a countenance somewhat lowering. He seemed worried, and took seat with the air of one too closely occupied with thoughts to notice or care for surroundings. It struck me, also, that he was niggardly in his recognition of friends.

Presently there was a commotion in the crowd and a general looking that way, and Mr. Lincoln mounted the steps. He paused on the platform, and took a look over the crowd and into the countenances near by, and there was a smile on his lips and a whole world of kindness in his eyes. The thin neck craned out over his sweat-wilted shirt collar while he bowed to acquaintances. Mr. Douglas's outer suit had conic from an accomplished tailor; Mr. Lincoln's spoke of a slop-shop. The multitude impressed me as the most undemonstrative of all I had ever seen on a political occasion. Every man of them, however, was palpitating with an anxiety too great for noise. So, I fancy, men must behave when they are spectators of a duel to the death.

At Ottawa, Mr. Douglas had presented a number of questions to Mr. Lincoln, which that gentleman answered at the Freeport meeting and countered by interrogatories on his side. It resulted that when the two came to Charleston the issues between them were all joined.

When time was called—if I may use the expression— Mr. Lincoln arose, straightening himself as well as he could. But for the benignant eyes, a more unattractive man I had never seen thus the centre of regard by so many people. His voice was clear without being strong. He was easy and perfectly self-possessed. The great audience received him in utter silence, and the July sun beat mercilessly upon his bare head.

Now, not having been blessed with a vision of the events to come, which were to set this uncouth person in a niche high up alongside Washington, leaving it debatable which of the two is greatest, I confess I inwardly laughed at him; only the laugh was quite as much at the political manager who had led him out against Mr. Douglas. Nevertheless, I gave him attention. Ten minutes—I quit laughing. He was getting hold of me. The pleasantry, the sincerity, the confidence, the amazingly original way of putting things, and the simple, unrestrained manner withal, were doing their perfect work; and then and there I dropped an old theory, that to be a speaker one must needs be graceful and handsome. Twenty minutes—I was listening breathlessly, and with a scarcely defined fear. I turned from him to Mr. Douglas frequently, wondering if the latter could indeed be so superior to this enemy as to answer and overcome him. Thirty minutes—the house divided against itself was looming up more than a figure of speech. My God, could it be prophetic! An hour—the limit of the speech. Mr. Lincoln took his seat. How many souls sat down with him —that is, how many of the unbelieving like myself were converted to his thinking—I could not know; yet of one thing I was assured—it was in somebody's intention to do the old government to death, and slavery was to be the excuse for the crime. Nor could I get from under a conviction that Mr. Lincoln's speech was a defence of Freedom.

Then Mr. Douglas arose. As his stumpy figure appeared, provoking comparison with his tall rival, I was amused thinking, what if in an alignment of company they should be required to dress right or left upon each other? He had an hour and a half for reply. Despite my predilections, I was driven shortly to acknowledge that the prepossession did not belong to him. His face was darkened by a deepening scowl, and he was angry; and in a situation like his anger is always an admission in the other party's favor. He spoke so gutturally, also, that it was difficult to understand him. Still he was my Gamaliel. From him I had my politics. He failed to draw me like his competitor; he had no magnetism; he was a mind all logic; at the same time, be it said in truth, Stephen A. Douglas could not make a poor speech. I listened almost prayerfully. Whereas Mr. Lincoln had been the fine flower of courtesy, Mr. Douglas made no return in kind. What could be the matter? Afterwards I knew. He was handicapped by a continuous terror lest he should say something that would lose him the support of the South in the vastly more important convention then shortly to be held at Charleston, South Carolina. I did not stay to hear him through, but left carrying with me a damaging contrast—while Mr. Lincoln had been the advocate of Freedom, Mr. Douglas, with all his genius for discussion, had not been able to smother the fact that he was indirectly and speciously acknowledging all the South claimed for slavery.

So Lincoln came into my view a second time.

And so, that day in Charleston, I discerned what all of opportunity the voting masses of the country could have to see and hear the men chosen by their respective parties for United States Senators, and choose between them. Accordingly, my scheme of legislation was to give conventions authority to nominate without disturbing the right of the legislature to elect. For this no change of Constitution was required; neither had I a doubt that the legislature would be governed by the action of the convention. The invariable loyalty of electoral colleges, invested as they are with the utmost freedom, appeared to me precisely in point.

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