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
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.