In honor of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I am working my way through Allan Nevins magisterial eight volume history of the war. And it is work. Nevins assumes a certain level of astuteness in his reader and once he gives you a fact he assumes you’ll remember it. It’s all great stuff, but I’m constantly asking myself, “now who’s this guy,” or, “what year are we in now?”
The first four volumes start back in the early 1840s and trace out the causes of the war. The cause was slavery. The South will say the cause was states rights, but the right they wanted most was the right to keep slaves. They felt their institutions under siege by the expanding North. They especially hated the wild abolitionist. The counter group in the South were the Fire Eaters who were ready to cut free from the Union yesterday.
So these volumes follow the efforts of the South to expand slavery into the new lands conquered in the Mexican War. The reader learns all about the Missouri Compromise, the Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision and much, much more. The Congress of today you soon realize is a cocktail party compared to the fisticuffs and duelists on the Senate floor in those days.
Volume three is titled "The Emergence of Lincoln," but he doesn't appear until page 350 (I expect I'll see a lot of him in the final five volumes). Lincoln shows up for the seven debates with Stephen Douglas. The debates were held all over Illinois in the summer and fall of 1858. I thought it would be a fun jaunt to visit all these sites. Using Google maps I discovered I’d have to drive 1136 miles to visit the sites in chronological order. The first debate was in Ottawa, southwest of Chicago. Then they moved up to Freeport on the Wisconsin border. Next it was way down south to Jonesboro, 421 miles by road. though the state only measures 390 miles north to south.
By driving to the sites in a big circle I could cut the distance to 853 miles. Coming from Minnesota, I’d visit Freeport first (debate #2). From there I’d head south, hitting the next four sites in easy two hour drives: Galesburg (5), Quincy (6), Alton (7), and Jonesboro (3). Those last three are along the beautiful Mississippi River. Take a break in Jonesboro then head north to Charleston (4) and back to Ottawa, where it all started.
A tidbit from Nevins: Just before the debates, Lincoln had won an important lawsuit for the Illinois Central Railroad. When the railroad refused to pay his fee, Lincoln sued them and won. This money allowed him to take time off to debate Douglas. Douglas threw this fee in Lincoln's face saying he was in the pocket of big business.
The scenery may change, but the actors stay true to form.