Lincoln Douglas Debate at Alton, Illinois

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Lincoln Douglas Debate at Alton, Illinois
William Sylvester Carter
Oil on canvas
29.5 x 39.62 in.
DuSable Museum of African American History, purchased from Illinois State Historical Library

In this painting, Abraham Lincoln takes the stage in Alton, Illinois. It is 1858, and this event is the last of seven, three-hour long debates Lincoln had with his rival for the U. S. Senate, Stephen A. Douglas, the famous Democratic Party leader. William Sylvester Carter imagines the debate with Abraham Lincoln standing front and center, about to speak to the 6,000 listeners in the audience. Douglas, seated to the left of Lincoln, looks on. Interestingly, Carter depicts the events taking place in a park-like setting. But in reality, the speakers stood on a platform in front of City Hall in downtown Alton.

The focus of the debates went well beyond Illinois politics. Instead, the men addressed the heated question of slavery in the territories. Douglas defended popular sovereignty and accused Lincoln of abolitionism and of supporting equality for African Americans. Lincoln asserted his commitment to free soil and defended the basic equality of all men, in terms of their right to liberty. But he also firmly denied that he believed in social or political equality for blacks, and asserted that he did not believe it was constitutional to abolish slavery where it already existed in the South.

Douglas won the senate seat, but Lincoln’s speeches during the debates made him a political rising star. This contributed to his victory as the Republican candidate for President in 1860.

Carter made his painting during the Civil Rights movement, when African Americans were fighting for equality with whites under the law and an end to discrimination.
1. Why do you think William Sylvester Carter was thinking about the Lincoln-Douglas debates during the Civil Rights era? What about the Alton debate would have been particularly important during this time?

2. Why do you think artists continued to paint pictures of Abraham Lincoln almost 100 years after his death?

Further reading:
Lincoln/Net and Northern Illinois University. “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858.” Northern Illinois University.

Lincoln, Abraham. Political Debates Between Lincoln and Douglas. Cleveland: Burrows Bros. Co., 1897. 

©DuSable Museum of African American History