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home : opinions : columns   May 29, 2016

2/19/2013 9:27:00 AM
Column: Nobody says, 'Stephen Douglas slept here'

Craig Sterrett
News Editor

Presidents Day this year had me thinking of the more obscure presidents and what might have happened if some presidents had not won elections. That led to the thought that you don’t hear town historians or homeowners bragging, “Stephen Douglas slept here,” although before the late 1850s he was far better-known than Abraham Lincoln.
In the early 1900s, Illinois small-town historians always tried to remember and remind people about the places Lincoln visited and slept in Illinois. But Douglas had to sleep somewhere before the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, which was in Ottawa, and it was not the Reddick Mansion, the only home still standing on the square in that August 1858 U.S. Senate debate.
Reddick Mansion Association president Diane Sanders said two-time state senator William Reddick indeed supported Douglas and stood beside him at the debate, because Reddick was a staunch supporter of all Democrats, and perhaps was hoping for higher appointment. She is trying to find documentation of tales that Reddick’s wife served a barbecue for Douglas, but she has not found proof of that, or that Reddick and Douglas were friends, or that they dined together.
“Reddick was tall, soft-spoken and temperate and Douglas was none of those,” Sanders said of Douglas, who drank and was short and loud.
Peru history buff Nancy Maze said Lincoln on the night before the debate stayed in the Glover house, north of the present-day Appellate Courthouse on the site of what’s now a strip mall. Lincoln was, according to Michael Burlingame’s, two-volume “Abraham Lincoln: A Life,” escorted to the home of Mayor Joseph O. Glover by Gen. W.H.L. Wallace, and at Glover’s, Lincoln spent the night before the debate. Ottawa history buff David Mumper said Lincoln also spent part of the day before the debate in the Geiger House, a long-since-demolished inn that was in the 800 block of La Salle Street in Ottawa.
Douglas traveled along the river road along the north side of the Illinois River from Peru to get to the debate, Mumper said.
Burlingame wrote: “Douglas arrived in a splendid carriage drawn by four horses and flanked by bands playing martial music.”
Maze said Douglas stayed the night before the first debate in the stately red brick house at Second and Peoria streets in Peru. At the time it was the home of Capt. J.L. McCormick, a Democrat who shipped freight and had barges and packet boats on the Illinois River and who also operated a pontoon bridge, a toll bridge, of course. According to the 1935 Peru centennial history book, Douglas presented the family with a steel engraving of himself and a message “presented Mrs. McCormick by S.A. Douglas Aug. 20, 1858.
Anyway, Douglas certainly was not without his staunch supporters in the Ottawa area, although Mumper said many of the lawyers seemed aligned with Lincoln already in 1858. Sanders said while Reddick was a supporter of Douglas because he was a Democrat, she has no proof Reddick supported deals Douglas brokered on slavery such as the divisive 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. By the time Lincoln campaigned for president, most of the Illinois Valley strongly supported Republicans, Sanders said.
Schoolchildren aren’t taught that Douglas is buried in the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago. Less famous, or perhaps less memorable, even than Douglas are the four presidents whose single terms preceded Lincoln. James Buchanan, in the term before Lincoln’s election, made deals that staved off secession of slave states for four years; Franklin Pierce is remembered for little in domestic policy other than not fully grasping the seriousness of the slavery matter; and Millard Fillmore, who served three years after the death of Zachary Taylor, signed the Compromise of 1850 that allowed the slavery issue to fester.
Hardly anyone promotes historic buildings as places where Douglas walked or where Millard Fillmore slept. I guess that’s what happens to politicians who cut deals on crucial issues, such as northward expansion of slavery, rather than those who make difficult decisions for the betterment of the nation.

Craig Sterrett can be reached at (815) 220-6935 or

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