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1858 Student Banner Supporting Douglas in Lincoln Douglas Debate at Knox College
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This incredibly rare silk and wool banner consisting of two panels with a horizontal seam across the middle has an embroidered woolen wreath around the inscription in red ink, “From the Democracy / of / Lombard University / to / Stephen A. Douglas.” This banner joins the Kansas State Historical Society’s Lincoln banner as one of only two known “debate trophies” specifically tied to one of the participants.

[LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES]. Campaign Banner Presented by the Democratic Students of Lombard University to Stephen A. Douglas before Galesburg Debate at Knox College, October 7, 1858. 28 x 28 in.

Inventory #24949       Price: $60,000

Historical Background

In 1858, Illinois attorney Abraham Lincoln, a member of the newly formed Republican Party, attempted to unseat the popular Democratic incumbent Stephen A. Douglas, the “Little Giant,” from his place in the United States Senate. Lincoln began his campaign for the Douglas’s senatorial seat as a virtual unknown. His national prominence and reputation grew, however, as he doggedly pursued Douglas around the state. Wherever Douglas would go to speak, Lincoln would go to rebut him the next day to the same crowd Douglas’s campaign had worked to assemble. Soon this stalking in Douglas’s shadow earned Lincoln his own following and his esteem within the Republican Party grew. On June 16, 1858—less than two months before this letter—Lincoln won the Republican nomination and delivered his immortal “House Divided” speech, and Douglas could no longer ignore Lincoln. On July 24, Lincoln wrote to Douglas and suggested they “divide time, and address the same audiences.” Douglas set the terms of the debates in a letter on July 30, and Lincoln agreed the following day.

As both had spoken in succession in Chicago and Springfield, the result was a series of joint debates between August 21 and October 15, 1858, in a city in each of the state’s other seven congressional districts—Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton. At each debate, one candidate would begin with an hour-long address, followed by the other for one hour and a half, and concluded by the first candidate for a half hour. They alternated the order at each debate. Thousands of people attended each debate, carrying banners for and cheering their favorite candidate.

On October 7, 1858, Lincoln and Douglas held their fifth joint debate on the campus of Knox College in Galesburg. At the time, Galesburg was a town with several thousand inhabitants and was home to both Knox College and Lombard University. A hostile Chicago newspaper considered it “the center of abolitionism in the state.” An estimated 16,000 to 18,000 people gathered to hear Lincoln and Douglas speak, the largest audience for any of the seven debates. Members of the audience came from miles in every direction, and a special train from Chicago brought additional attendees.

Stephen A. Douglass arrived just after ten o’clock by train from Monmouth and was escorted by three military companies and a group of students from Lombard University to the Bancroft House, a hotel at the corner of Depot and Center Streets. There, George W. Elwell (1830-1869), a Lombard student from Missouri, made a speech of welcome. Then, Miss Hattie L. Wheeler and Miss Ruth W. Miller (1842-1892), “lady students of Democratic leaning,” presented Douglas with “a banner of white satin, circular in form, bordered with a silver fringe, and decorated upon one side with an embroidered wreath of pink roses, and displaying upon the other the complimentary words, ‘To Our Statesman.’” Another account described the banner as “inscribed: ‘From the Democracy of Lombard University to Stephen A. Douglas.’ The banner was a ‘true circle’ of silk, with a beautifully embroidered wreath within.” Douglas responded “with great felicity,” and his friends were all satisfied. They then escorted Douglas to the Bonney House, a three-story frame hotel on Main Street.

Banners were a vital part of political campaigns in 1858, and scores were present in Galesburg on October 7. After describing more than a dozen “notable banners” in the procession to Knox College, a newspaper reporter declared, “Star spangled banners were numberless.” That this banner survived is remarkable. According to one newspaper report, “The crowd was immense notwithstanding the heavy rains of the day previous, and the sudden change during the night to a fiercely blowing, cutting wind which lasted during the whole day, ripping and tearing banners and sending signs pellmell all over town.” In separate descriptions of this banner in 1896 and 1960, it was assumed not to have survived.

At 2:00 p.m., a large group of citizens escorted Lincoln and Douglas “in two four-horse carriages driven abreast” to Knox College. Douglas opened this debate, Lincoln replied, and Douglas closed the discussion. Lincoln spoke for the first time at length and forthrightly about the immorality of slavery. “I confess myself,” he said, “as belonging to that class in the country that contemplates slavery as a moral, social, and political evil.” He paraphrased Henry Clay when he accused Douglas of “blowing out the moral lights around us.” Douglas criticized Lincoln for talking about slavery differently in northern Illinois than he did in southern Illinois. Many researchers consider the Galesburg debate the turning point for Lincoln, as he found his voice and emphasized the moral issue of slavery.

As in all states, Illinois voters did not vote directly for either candidate to the United States Senate in 1858. They voted for representatives and senators to the Illinois General Assembly, which chose the next Senator. Although Republican candidates received a plurality of votes, the Democrats gained a majority in the legislature and elected Douglas to another term. Despite the loss, Lincoln’s performance in these debates gave his supporters confidence to forward him as a candidate for President in 1860.

Lombard University (1853-1930) was founded in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1853, by the Universalist Church as the Illinois Liberal Institute. A fire damaged much of the college in 1855, but a major gift from Benjamin Lombard rescued the institution, which was renamed Lombard University. The institution was coeducational, and its notable faculty included David Starr Jordan, who later became the president of Indiana University and the first president of Stanford University. Carl Sandburg attended Lombard but did not graduate. Lombard could not survive the Great Depression, and its last class graduated in 1930. Some of its students transferred to Knox College, which holds the records of Lombard University.


Glued around the edges to a paper board. Some loss at the corners, and some loss and thinning to the lettering and scattered stains, as shown. The colors are strong.

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