The day the ‘Little Giant’ spoke at Monmouth
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Much has been written about Abraham Lincoln’s speech in Monmouth on Oct. 11, 1858, but Sen. Stephen A. Douglas’s address in Monmouth a week earlier has received considerably less attention.
Lincoln and Douglas had been locked in a heated campaign that many assume was a race for the U.S. Senate, when in fact it was a fight for political control of the Illinois legislature, which in those days elected U.S. senators. That election would not occur until 1859, and would result in the election of Douglas, but would also serve as a prelude to the 1860 presidential campaign, won by Lincoln.
Known as the “Little Giant,” Douglas stood only 5-foot-4-inches tall. A master politician and gifted public speaker, he preferred not to appear on the same stage as Lincoln. His general strategy was to make a campaign appearance in a town first and let Lincoln come a few days later, as was the case in Monmouth. It was only through Lincoln’s pressure that a series of debates was scheduled in seven of Illinois’ nine congressional districts.
The Galesburg debate occurred October 7 — two days after Douglas spoke in Monmouth, and four days before Lincoln would visit the Warren County seat.
Douglas was no stranger to Monmouth, having often appeared on the circuit court bench in the Warren County Courthouse early in his career. He had presided there over the famous legal hearing for Mormon founder Joseph Smith in 1841.
Monmouth was a stronghold of Republicanism and the Republican Atlas did not hold back in its criticism of Douglas, who was the sitting U.S. senator. Prior to his visit, The Atlas wrote that an invitation had been given to “all parties to turn out and hear the great expounder expound.” The Atlas continued: “We are not exactly able to account for the invitation to ‘all parties,’ since the democrats have heretofore rather eschewed than invited other parties to their banquets and gatherings. It can’t be that they are going to fuse with anybody, or anything. Oh, no — nothing of that kind. It would be against their creed. But, in imitation of their slaveholding master, they have simply ‘changed their opinion,’ and now seek the society of those they have heretofore endeavored to drive as far from them as possible.”
As for details the speech itself, we have to rely primarily on the reporting of the Republican media, as Monmouth’s Democratic paper, The Review, wrote more about the reception given the senator upon his arrival, and the various delegations that attended from all parts of the county. It also described that evening’s torchlight parade and meeting at the courthouse, where Douglas was one of four Democrats making addresses.
We do have a fascinating eyewitness account of Douglas’s afternoon speech by Matthew Jamison, a student at Monmouth College at the time. Jamison was an Oquawka native, whose father had sat on a jury when Douglas was a circuit court judge there in the early 1840s, and Jamison had heard him speak in Oquawka several years earlier.
Jamison described Douglas’s Monmouth speech thus:
“He had grown stouter: his voice, always strong, now seemed at times Stentorian as he rolled off his periods. His deliberation was such that his words seemed hyphenated, and too the syllables, and he became so absorbed in his theme that he was oblivious of his handkerchief and other rifles till the foam gathered in the corners of his mouth, not an object specially attractive. I was at school at the time, and having a good voice myself, I used often to amuse my conferes by imitating Douglas’ peculiar bull-dog notes and manner. I usually began with the Senator’s opening sentence in his Monmouth speech: “Fellow-citizens-of-old-Warren! We-have-come-together-to-discuss-the-great-questions-which are-now ag-i-ta-ting-the-country-from-center-to-circumference!”
According to The Atlas, Douglas spoke before 1,000 to 1,200 persons and the program opened with Chief Justice Joseph Williams of Iowa singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Douglas opened his speech, The Atlas said, with the remark that he found but few willing to take issue with him upon the great questions then undergoing discussion — the Kansas and Nebraska bill, and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. He presented of history of his proposition on the Missouri Compromise, vehemently abusing the Whigs and the Abolitionists, and the “Know Nothings” also. The Atlas was “surprised to witness such a feeling of hatred and animosity as was evinced by the Judge towards all parties who differ with him on the great subjects now at issue between himself and the people.”
The following day, a Monmouth correspondent for the Republican Chicago Tribune filed a scathing report of the address:
“On yesterday Judge Douglas gave us a re-hash of his many speeches delivered during the present canvass. Great efforts had been made by his friends to make a tremendous display. By ten o’clock officers, Grand and Petit marshals, etc., were tearing and plunging through our usually quiet village, with strips of red calico gracefully tied over their shoulders. Well, the delegations from the different townships began to come in. That of the South contained two men and four boys. That of the West contained about 40 of the unterrified, and a lot of women and boys. About one o’clock P.M. the Small Giant which his reporter, letter writer and picture vendors were brought down from the tavern and placed upon the stand on the east side of the square. About 500 of the Douglas faction, including women and boys, then gathered around the stand. The Senator being called for, arose and delivered himself one of his old speeches. He labored for some two hours, and made huge efforts to get up a little enthusiasm, but it wouldn’t work. His friends were disappointed. They came (as one old Democrat told me) to hear something about the Senator’s present position in regard to politics, and why he bolted from the Democratic party, etc. the burthen of this speech was about Lincoln, what he had said, what he had done, and in the use of the terms Abolitionist, Black Republican, Amalgemationists, etc., n****er equality, etc., etc. He ranted and foamed and tried to get eloquent, but all to no purpose. His friends were disappointed. They expected enough of the Republicans would turn out to make the crowd respectable, but it was no go. ’Tis true that at least one third of the voters present were Republicans, but all told I do not think the crowd would exceed 600 or 700 voters.”
The Douglas speech at Monmouth gradually faded from memory, but in 1909 it was revived when the town became caught up in the national celebration of Lincoln’s birthday centennial. On Oct. 27, the Puritan and Cavalier chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated bronze tablets in recognition of both Lincoln’s and Douglas’s Monmouth speeches. Rainy weather caused what had been planned as elaborate ceremonies to be somewhat curtailed, but at 2:30 a large crowd gathered at the northeast corner of the Public Square, where Douglas spoke, and little Miss Louise May Patton unveiled a plaque (which today is affixed to the side of City Hall). The crowd then assembled on South First Street, near the lumberyard where Lincoln spoke, to unveil the second plaque. The final exercises occurred in the First Presbyterian Church, where citizens who had witnessed the 1858 speeches sat together in a group.
Mrs. J.H. Hanley, regent of the D.A.R. chapter, presented the tablets to the city. City attorney Field, acting for Mayor John Brown, responded: “In accepting these tablets we should realize that sacred trust is given to our care and keeping. And now, ladies of the D.A. R., on behalf of the city I wish to assure you that our city council will pass all legislation in its powers to properly protect and preserve them that they be a heritage to coming generations.”
Also speaking at the ceremony was ex-Gov. Richard Yates Jr., son of the Illinois’ wartime Gov. Richard Yates.
At least one relic of Douglas’s address survived. In 1980 Review Atlas historian Ralph Eckley wrote about a badge that had been worn by Douglas the day of his speech, which he presented as a souvenir to then-Monmouth mayor Jacob Holt. The badge was passed down to Holt’s granddaughter, Fannie Bradford Bailey, who in 1953 gave it to William M. Hutchins, a leader in the local Democratic party. Hutchins, who still owned the badge in 1980, died about five years later. If anyone knows the current whereabouts of the badge, I would be interested to know.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.