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Commentary: Some of the core issues that separated Lincoln and Douglas still resonate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2009 - In 1972, I first saw the sign in Alton, at the site of the historic debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. The commemorative marker was a white wooden board on which was inscribed in black letters Site of Lincoln-Douglas Debates

It was seated unceremoniously in a clump of weeds by a garbage container on the side of the street.

"This is not right," I wrote to the Alton Telegraph. Here we have one of the great moments in American history deserving of public recognition. It deserves a better fate than a crude sign set by the side of the roadway.

In years gone by, Alton didn't do much to promote its historic memories. While there is a towering monument in the hills above the town to Elijah Lovejoy, the first martyr to a free press who fell defending his press and First Amendment ideals, the editor is still held in distain among many for his anti-slavery editorials. The ruins of the Confederate military prison are just that - ruins.

At some time in the 1990s, Lincoln-Douglas Square was created commemorating the great debate with two splendid statues of the Little Giant and Honest Abe. There are, however, no regular interpreters and only seldom re-enactments of the speeches.

Alton is not alone in failing to pay attention to its rich history; the same could be said of St. Louis. But special attention has been paid to Abraham Lincoln in this the 200th anniversary year of his birth, and the final Lincoln-Douglas debate -- the one held in Alton -- was held Oct. 16, 1858.

When Lincoln and Douglas came to face each other in the final debate in their campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate, the air was rife with controversy and crisis not altogether unlike the realities of our day. The Alton debate is a window into our own world, and the broad issues at Alton are strikingly similar to what Barack Obama and the Congress face today.

The times were harsh, the margins thin. People were anxious, the future of the Constitution and the Union were at stake - slavery and its extension into the new territories threatened the balance of power, the ominous prospects of a war between the North and the South, the economy, the solvency of banks, a divided Congress, the politics of hate: all these things thickened the air.

Douglas was an advocate of state's rights. He believed in the sanctity of slavery and was the sponsor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would extend the right of jurisdictions to settle on their own determination in allowing the evil institution to spread. The white man's superiority in matters of American life was the bulwark of Douglas' policies.

Lincoln, however, had said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." And by the time he addressed a hostile crowd in Alton, he was debunking "the economics of the day, that no one should bake bread and another man eat it." It as a magnificent idea of equality.

The old battle over a strong federal government continues. And the matter of state control comes up in education, in health care and other issues. How does the national government balance the equation in matters of health care? Is it a right or a privilege?

And behind that division over race and slavery were the gathering storm clouds of war.

War is not a looming storm for President Barack Obama, but something he must deal with. Putting more troops abroad in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan could be as Vietnam was for Lyndon Johnson, his Achilles heel. Foreign affairs may well be the most difficult issues of his presidency.

And the politics of race, hate, fear and derision are part of the backdrop today as they were 151 years ago.

Lincoln, Douglas and Obama -- three men from Illinois -- are worthy of our understanding of America today. It doesn't take much to realize that then as now our world hangs in the balance as we still seek "to achieve a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with other nations."

Lincoln did not sway the audience at Alton and he lost his bid for the Senate in the halls of the Illinois Legislature when the delegates voted for Douglas – even though he had won the popular vote. But while he lost, ole Abe won the admiration of great numbers in the North. Better that he lost, for in 1861 he won the presidency and saved the soul of a belingered nation.

So during these waning days of autumn why not visit Alton, where you will discover significant landmarks that commemorate our history – Alton in America – America in Alton is as it should be a celebration of our nation's heritage?

Robert W. Tabscott, a Presbyterian minister, heads the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Society. One of its projects has been to put together stories of the diverse men and women who were important to this area's history. Ther preceeding is adapted from that work.