This large-scale plaster relief commemorates the Lincoln-Douglas debate of October 13, 1858, the sixth in a series of seven oratorical contests waged throughout lllinois between the two men running for election to the U.S. Senate. The bronze casting made from it is in Washington Park, Quincy, Illinois, the site of the event. Local civic groups commissioned the work and Lorado Taft produced it, but people "of the Democratic faith in politics" indirectly but surely affected its appearance and content.
The main issue battled by the pair at length--each speech lasted two to three hours--involved the extension of slavery to the territories. Lincoln, a Republican relatively unknown outside the Midwest, gained national attention (and the presidency two years later) for his fervent conviction that slavery was repugnant, a moral wrong inconsistent with the spirit of democracy. He knew he could not interfere with the practice in the states where it existed; it was constitutionally protected. But it must not spread, he argued. It was a matter of the "common right of humanity," and only the power of strong federal government action would lead to its gradual extinction.
For Democratic incumbent Stephen A. Douglas, who won election by a very small margin, the raising of the moral aspect of slavery brought with it the danger of disunion and civil war. While not pro-slavery, he insisted that it was a matter of choice-that power resided at the community level, that people should decide the slavery question for themselves. It was the "great principle of self-government," he said, "the right of the people to rule."
Taft's first sketch for the monument was dramatically yet simply conceived, containing just three foreground characters: a man with a cane to the left, partially obscured by a podium; Lincoln at center, a commanding, heroic figure turned away from his opponent; and Douglas to the right, seated, a small, compact mass. (At 5'4", the "Little Giant" was a full foot shorter than "Long Abe.") A mound of faces in back artfully suggested the dais audience.
But Quincy sponsors unanimously rejected the proposal. "While you have reproduced both Lincoln and Douglas faithfully you have given Lincoln too much prominence, and have shown Douglas in too small a position," Loren Cox, chairman of the citizens' committee, told Taft. "Personally this would be no objection, but we have a host of people here of the Democratic faith in politics and they would criticize the committee severely if it appeared that this was principally a Lincoln memorial. ... At least place the figures in a little different position and show them on a more even scale."
Without hesitation, Taft responded by saying that he could not see how a good composition could be made without a dominant figure. "I have treated the two with equal respect but obviously both cannot be shown speaking. If you prefer it we can have Douglas speaking and Lincoln sitting; that could be done," he wrote, adding diplomatically, "I am reading a very full life of Douglas and find him even more interesting than I had imagined."
Cox ignored him. "Could you work up a sketch placing Douglas on the other side of the stage, something along the lines of the rough sketch enclosed, having on stage some ladies as well as men. History states that both men and women were on the stage or platform from which the addresses were delivered."
At that, the artist gave up. 'I shall do my best to follow your suggestion. Douglas is getting bigger and bigger as I read his story. I shall probably end by having a profound admiration for him."
How did it tum out? As can be seen, gradations of relief indicate depth and create an interplay of light and shadow in the crowded, rather woodenly modeled finished work. Douglas shares center stage with Lincoln and seems to have gained physical stature. Seated next to him, partly hidden by the podium, is his vivacious young wife, Adele Cutts Douglas. Somewhere in the story is a lesson about respecting an artist's judgment.
The city of Quincy dedicated the plaque on October 13, 1936, the seventy-eighth anniversary of the debate. Taft attended the ceremony, caught a cold, and died seventeen days later in Chicago at the age of seventy-six. The Lincoln-Douglas Debate stands as his last creation.