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Lincoln-Douglas debates recreated in Norwich fundraiser

Norwich - If states are forced either to accept slavery against their wishes or to abolish it within their borders, then the nation will be forced into war.

But didn't the Founding Fathers base their Declaration of Independence on the statement that "all men are created equal?"

More than 170 people at Three Rivers Community College Friday night were transported back in time to hear the emotionally charged issues of 1858, when Democratic Illinois U.S. Senate incumbent Stephen A. Douglas - portrayed by Luke Boyd - faced off against witty challenger Abraham Lincoln - Lewis Dube - of the fledgling Republican Party.

The sold-out event was a fundraiser for the Norwich Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Committee, which is raising money to cast and erect an Emancipation Bell in Norwich in June.

Lincoln repeatedly cited the words of the Declaration that "all men are created equal," and challenged Douglas to come up with an alternate definition of the word "all." The incumbent stumbled slightly before recounting that the Founding Fathers were referring to white men only and those of British descent, in particular.

To that, Lincoln concocted a new sentence for the opening of the Declaration, parenthetically excluding not only Negroes and Indians but whites of French and German descent and those of other non-British origin, drawing chuckles from the packed house.

Douglas pointed out that most of the Founding Fathers were slave owners themselves, but Lincoln said they struggled mightily with the issue, and the only reason they didn't abolish it was that "they didn't know how to do so at the time."

Douglas didn't falter. He stood on his principles that all the states in the Union must decide for themselves whether to allow or abolish slavery. He cast Lincoln as a would-be despot who would force either position onto states against their will. Douglas argued that the founders knew of the differences between New Hampshire, South Carolina and Indiana.

Fresh on the candidates' minds was the famous U.S. Supreme Court case one year earlier that declared in the Dred Scott decision that people of African descent were not U.S. citizens. Lincoln said he held out hope that a future court would reverse the decision, as courts have done in the past, but Douglas offered that if the nation did not abide by the supreme court of the land, it could not stand.

The 2012 version of the Lincoln-Douglas debate varied quite a bit from the seven original 1858 affairs, which lasted hours and included long speeches and rebuttals by each candidate, spirited on by cheers and jeers in the audiences.

Friday's crowd gave polite applause and non-interruptive chuckling at jokes and anecdotes throughout the hour-long debate. The two candidates shook hands and smiled at each other after their concluding remarks and then worked the crowd, as any modern candidate would do.

While this crowd had the benefit of 154 years of hindsight, spectators still found themselves captivated by the arguments and the delivery of the candidates.

Asked who they thought prevailed in the debate, Marlene Owen of Norwich quickly said "Lincoln, he's fairer," while RJ Darby, 12, also of Norwich, sitting next to her, said "Douglas."

Members of the Norwich Free Academy debate team - who took the stage after the re-enactors for an exchange on illegal immigration and states' rights - said the debate brought to life what they have been studying in class.

"It's a whole new experience than just studying it," said NFA senior Emma Fontaine of Norwich.

c.bessette@theday.com

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