This Week In Illinois “History”: The Lincoln-Douglas Debate That Never Was (August 28, 1858)
The seven Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were widely covered by the national press and have been scrutinized ever since.
But for years, the city of West Chicago claimed to have been the site of a little-known eighth debate. They had no information on what was discussed. There were no accounts of the debate in any newspaper, but people in West Chicago swore that on August 28, 1858, when the town was called Turner Junction, Lincoln and Douglas debated in a nearby hickory grove.
According to the West Chicago City Museum, this debate is first mentioned in a 1921 newspaper story. Emory Watson remembered traveling from Elburn to Turner Junction for Douglas’s speech. Her party picked up Abraham Lincoln, who was visiting a relative and needed to catch a train. When they arrived at Junction, Lincoln was invited to debate Douglas. The two men accepted.
After Watson’s account, more people came forward claiming to have witnessed the debate or hearing about it secondhand. These accounts placed the debate on August 26, 27, or 28. August 28 emerged as the most likely candidate because Douglas did give a speech in Junction that day.
It should be noted that in the early 20th century, many communities celebrated the 50th anniversary of Civil War-era events. From 1910 and well into the 1920s, a great deal of Civil War mythology emerged, much of it fabricated by nostalgia and an elderly population misremembering the events of its youth. Many towns embraced these stories as a source of local pride or to profit from Civil War tourism.
In 1928, to mark the 70th anniversary of the alleged Lincoln-Douglas debate, the West Chicago Women’s Club erected a stone monument with a bronze plaque at the site of the supposed debate.
When DuPage County celebrated its centennial in 1939, it printed posters commemorating the debate. The posters were designed to look like replicas, but the debate location is listed as West Chicago. The town was not called West Chicago until 1896.
By mid-century, historians had thoroughly debunked the story. Records show Lincoln at other places at the time, and newspaper accounts that reported on Douglas’s speech in Junction gave no mention of Lincoln being present. The stone monument was damaged in the 1960s and eventually removed.
Today, the West Chicago City Museum acknowledges the quirky story of the Lincoln-Douglas debate that never was.