Lin­coln-Dou­glas de­bate get­ting a sec­ond act

Ac­tors who play ri­vals say they want to add con­text to se­na­tor’s legacy be­fore his like­nesses are re­moved from state Capi­tol

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY NEAL EAR­LEY, STAFF RE­PORTER near­ley@sun­ | @neal_ear­ley

SPRING­FIELD — Even 162 years af­ter their his­toric de­bates, Stephen Dou­glas and Abra­ham Lin­coln are still go­ing at it.

And the ques­tion of slav­ery is once again at the cen­ter of the de­bate.

Dou­glas is op­posed to por­traits and stat­ues com­mem­o­rat­ing him be­ing re­moved from the state Capi­tol. Lin­coln is on the fence, agree­ing that parts of his long­time po­lit­i­cal neme­sis’ per­sonal his­tory are “un­palat­able,” but ar­gu­ing that if not for the “Lit­tle Gi­ant,” the “Great Eman­ci­pa­tor” would have never made it to the White House.

At least those are the po­si­tions of two men who travel the coun­try play­ing Lin­coln and Dou­glas, recre­at­ing their fa­mous de­bates to ed­u­cate the pub­lic.

They were re­spond­ing to Illi­nois House Speaker Mike Madi­gan’s call for Dou­glas’ por­trait and stat­ues to be re­moved from the state Capi­tol be­cause “of Stephen Dou­glas’ dis­turb­ing past as a Mis­sis­sippi slave owner and his ab­hor­rent words toward peo­ple of color.”

Reached by the Chicago Sun­Times, Ge­orge Buss, who plays Lin­coln, and Tim Con­nors, who por­trays Dou­glas, said they wanted to add some con­text to Dou­glas’ his­tor­i­cal legacy be­fore his like­nesses are re­moved.

“He did have is­sues, but his good for this coun­try out­weighed his bad,” Con­nors said.

A na­tional push for racial jus­tice has re­newed de­bate about stat­ues of many his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. Dou­glas, a Demo­cratic se­na­tor from Illi­nois, is per­haps best known as be­ing the foil to Lin­coln in a se­ries of 1858 de­bates now known as the “Lin­coln-Dou­glas” de­bates. They cen­tered on slav­ery and the fu­ture of the coun­try as Dou­glas ran to keep his U.S. Se­nate seat.

Dou­glas ul­ti­mately held the seat, but the de­bates cat­a­pulted Lin­coln to na­tional promi­nence and led to his even­tual elec­tion as pres­i­dent in 1860.

Buss, who has been in­ter­pret­ing Lin­coln for more than three decades, is also pres­i­dent of the Stephen A. Dou­glas As­so­ci­a­tion. He said he has no opin­ion on whether the Dou­glas memo­ri­als should stay or go, but he is glad that the “Lit­tle Gi­ant” — the nick­name of the po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful 5-foot-4 inch Dou­glas — is be­ing dis­cussed again.

“Pub­lic art should serve as a cat­a­lyst for con­ver­sa­tion, and the fact that you and I are hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion is show­ing pub­lic art has been that cat­a­lyst,” Buss told the Sun-Times.

But for Madi­gan, Dou­glas’ faults are too much.

Dou­glas pushed for “pop­u­lar sovereignt­y” to al­low ter­ri­to­ries to vote on whether they would be slave or free states. Dou­glas also in­her­ited slaves through his wife’s fam­ily.

The pow­er­ful South­west Side Demo­crat said the death of Ge­orge Floyd, who was killed by a Min­neapo­lis po­lice of­fi­cer, prompted him to push to make sure a por­trait and stat­ues of Dou­glas and other “sym­bols of hate are re­moved from our ev­ery­day lives.”

State Sen. Emil Jones III, DChicago, agreed.

“Peo­ple like Stephen Dou­glas need not be glo­ri­fied, and es­pe­cially not on gov­ern­ment grounds,” Jones said in a state­ment. “Of course, we can­not change our past, but we can make an ef­fort to move for­ward and honor peo­ple who sup­port peo­ple of all racial back­grounds.”

For Dou­glas’ de­fend­ers, the Kansas-Ne­braska Act, which he cham­pi­oned, was his at­tempt to pre­vent a loom­ing Civil War. And af­ter the South se­ceded from the Union, Dou­glas, while not an abo­li­tion­ist, sup­ported the Union cause just be­fore his death in June of 1861.

Gra­ham Peck, a Wep­ner Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Lin­coln Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Spring­field, called Dou­glas “prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant se­na­tor in the his­tory of the coun­try,” but also stated that Dou­glas was “a lead­ing race-baiter in Amer­i­can his­tory” and op­posed abo­li­tion as slav­ery was tear­ing the coun­try apart.

Peck said leg­is­la­tors have the right to re­move stat­ues, but they should con­sult with his­to­ri­ans be­fore they make their de­ci­sion.

“I would not make an ar­gu­ment that no statue can never be taken down or al­tered — I don’t think that’s rea­son­able,” Peck said. “What I do see that con­cerns me is a wide­spread move­ment to be re­mov­ing many, many stat­ues.”


Tim Con­nors, who por­trays Stephen Dou­glas, and Ge­orge Buss, who plays Abra­ham Lin­coln, in a pro­mo­tional poster.

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