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Home and History: Lincoln-Douglas debates paved Lincoln's road to the White House

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GALESBURG, Ill. (WEEK) -- -

This week these United States celebrate Abe Lincoln’s 209th birthday.

And because it's also Black History Month, we're heading back to where Lincoln caught America’s attention through a series of debates, including one at Knox College.

As part of our continuing coverage of "Home and History: Celebrating 200 Years" we head tonight to Galesburg.

It is called Old Main - a national historic landmark finished on the campus of Knox College in 1857 that is forever linked to Lincoln.

"You know, people are always saying, 'You know, he didn't really want to free the slaves. It was a political move, not a moral move,’ said Knox College sophomore Natasha Caudill.

Even this college sophomore faces the future with a definite eye to Illinois’ past.

"To me, he still did it at a time when that view wasn't very popular,” said Caudill. “And then he lost his life because of it." 

Here on the Galesburg campus, reminders of the past are never far away.

This chair kept Lincoln comfortable in 1858 after one of seven debates with Stephen Douglas. The Lincoln-Douglas debates that would not win Abe the Senate seat he was after, but would propel his name nationwide....and the rest of him into the White House two years later.

"Lincoln was in and out of this chair that day,” said Knox College historian Owen Muelder.  "And a lot of people have been sitting in this chair ever since, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama and many, many others."

The debate was October 7, 1858.

But because of the large crowd – 10,000 to 15,000 people - the stage blocked the door, pushing the speakers through this window, onto the platform.

"He gets out onto the stage and says,' Now I can say I've been through college,’” said Muelder.

The oral contest stretched on for two hours and 45 minutes, centering on the expansion of the western U.S. territories - with or without slaves.

"This debate drew the largest crowd. And historians have always felt that it was in Galesburg that Lincoln kind of found his legs and confidence in a way that he had not demonstrated in previous debates,” said Muelder. "That he really takes on the issue of slavery being immoral in a way that he never had before." 

It's a piece of the school's history that dominates Alumni Hall. This is a newly renovated section that keys heavily on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, paid for in part by a grant from the Library of Congress.

With the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, America would once and for all end the debate.

But that period will always be part of the Knox identity.

Even after winning the White House, the civil war and passage of the 13th Amendment, Abraham Lincoln had some doubts about whether America could ever be a fully integrated society.

But now, of course, we know that Illinois’ Barack Obama, has already served 8 years as commander in chief.

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