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On October 15, 1858, Alton witnessed one of its most memorable events, the seventh and closing debate between United States Senatorial candidates, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.
Lincoln had other connections with Alton. In April, 1840, Lincoln delivered a political speech for Whig candidate William Henry Harrison at "The Old Court Room, Riley's Building." Lincoln also campaigned for John C. Freemont in October 2, 1865 at the Illinois State air in Alton.
During his law practice, Lincoln once represented the city in a losing lawsuit and once suited it successfully for New York actress Mary Macready who had fallen into an excavation on an Alton street.
Historians disagree about the importance of the Alton debate. Some argue that it climaxed the series while others say it only repeated arguments in the sixth debate at Quincy.
Douglas won the election, but it cost him the presidential nomination. In answer to Lincoln, he was forced to expound on his views that the territories need not have slavery despite the Dred Scott decision. The extreme proslavery faction of the Democratic party labeled him indifferent to slavery rather than an advocate of it and split the party in 1860. Lincoln on the other hand, only gained from the debates. Before 1858, he was scarcely known outside Illinois. After 1858, he was asked to speak in several other states and in 1860 received the Republican nomination due to the unavailability of Seward and Chase.
Lincoln and Douglas arrived onboard the City of Louisiana in Alton at five o'clock on the morning of the debate. Douglas proceeded to the Alton House hotel. Lincoln went to the Franklin House hotel on Third Street where he met his wife Mary Todd, who arrived by train from Springfield. On the same train were the Springfield Cadets, of whom Lincoln's oldest son Robert was a member.
After a demonstration by the Springfield Cadets and Merritt's Cornet Band, the crowd of 6,000 gathered before the recently completed city hall. At two o'clock Judge Douglas, suffering from a strained voice, opened the debate. Among his arguments was a charge that if the framers of the Constitution had voted, slavery would have been ratified for all states, casting doubt on Llincon's "a house divided theory.
In rebuttal, Lincoln used wit and sarcasm to point out Douglas' own inconsistencies.
One of those who joined the combatants on the platform was H. B. McPike, a leader of the newly emerging Republican party and great-grandfather of State Representative Jim McPike.
Reprinted from Bluff City Profiles Alton, Illinois 1837-1987 Sesquicentennial Commemorative Book
Lincoln Had Many Ties to Alton by Darryl Short