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Lincoln and Douglas History in Winchester, Illinois

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KT Dunn is a Midwest native who takes pride in the region's history and heritage.


The Importance of Winchester, Illinois

So many little Midwestern towns are hidden treasures full of history and memories. They are a testament to our heritage, to the times that once were, and to the people who populated them. Those people left remnants of their lives here, in the form of the buildings and homes they constructed and accounts of important events that helped set the stage for our country's future.

Winchester is the county seat of Scott County, one of the smallest counties in Illinois. The town was developed in 1830 and gained its most famous resident, Stephen A. Douglas, in 1833.

Many times while traveling I-72 in Illinois, I had resisted the temptation to take the Winchester exit out of curiosity because I was too pressed for time. Finally, the day came to explore, and I drove into Winchester for the first time to see what was there.

The town is a little larger than I had envisioned, with a population of around 1,500. Featuring a stunning 1880s courthouse, a well-kept town square, and blocks of graceful Victorian homes, the quiet village speaks of a long and prosperous past. With a little research, I soon learned that Winchester was also home to some notable US history.


Who Was Stephen A. Douglas?

Born in 1813 in Vermont, Stephen Arnold Douglas moved to Illinois as a young man and became an active member of the Democratic party. In 1833, he settled in the town of Winchester, where he taught school and began legal studies. He passed the bar in 1834 and then practiced law in nearby Jacksonville.

Douglas became a state representative from 1836 to 1837 and later served as secretary of state for Illinois as well as on the state supreme court. From 1843 to 1847, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives and was elected to the United States Senate in 1847, where he served until his death in 1861 at the age of 48.

As a U.S. senator, Douglas introduced a bill that became the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which would not ban slavery but would allow the new territories created thereunder to decide for themselves whether to allow it. Douglas apparently believed that both proponents and opponents of slavery would find this acceptable following the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

Instead, the Act stirred up further conflict among the various factions and ultimately led to the creation of the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln's rise to national prominence.

The first employment that Stephen Douglas obtained upon his arrival in Winchester was clerking at an estate sale for two and a half days, for which he was paid the sum of $2.50.

Lincoln's Return to Politics

Abraham Lincoln began his legal career in 1837. He served as an Illinois state representative from 1834 to 1840 and completed one term as a U.S. congressman, from 1847 to 1849. After that, he concentrated on his law practice while remaining an active member of the struggling Whig party, supporting candidates and delivering speeches.

Twice a year, he journeyed throughout the Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit to bring legal representation to the various county seats. He utilized his circuit-riding travels to reach his audiences. Prior to 1854 and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, Lincoln’s public response to the question of slavery had been somewhat low-key, in part for political reasons.

He also believed, as did many others, that slavery in the United States would eventually die out if not permitted to expand into newly developed territories. The scenario brought about by the new Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, demanded action.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was introduced in January 1854. Following its passage in May of that year, Abraham Lincoln’s newfound focus became intense. He began a series of speeches opposing the Act, continuing in his established pattern on the traveling circuit. Scott County was not part of the Eighth Circuit, but Lincoln introduced his new message at a Whig convention in Winchester in late August, speaking on the upper floor of the previous Scott County courthouse which stood in what is now the town square park.

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In 1855, Lincoln embarked on his first campaign for the U.S. Senate. Failing to achieve that, he soon became involved in meetings of Kansas-Nebraska Act opponents, including both Whigs and Democrats. As a result of these meetings, the Republican Party was formed.

Winchester town square

Winchester town square

Historical Markers

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The sign pictured above stands in a small park in the town square, once the lawn of the original courthouse, near a large statue of a seated Stephen Douglas. The text thereon explains the significance of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and reads as follows:

Winchester, Illinois—Lincoln's First Challenge of Douglas and Destiny—Abraham Lincoln first publicly challenged U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas's 'Nebraska Bill' during a Whig county convention August 26, 1854, in the Scott County courtroom located at this site. Because the Bill allowed for the expansion of slavery, Lincoln was so 'aroused' that he re-entered politics to challenge it after five years of political retirement. Drafted by Senator Douglas and coined 'Popular Sovereignty,' the Kansas/Nebraska Act gave new territories and emerging states the right to choose by popular ballot if slavery was to be permitted or banned. The Bill effectively canceled the Missouri Compromise, which during the previous 34 years had allowed limited expansion of slavery in the nation. Lincoln's anti-Nebraska speeches and historic 1858 debates with Douglas gained him national political recognition. Although he failed twice to become U.S. Senator, first as a Whig and second as a Republican, Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States in 1860.

Civil war came to the nation in 1861. After the Confederate defeat at Antietam, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freeing all slaves in rebellious states. He signed the 13th Amendment, February 1, 1865. When ratified on December 6, 1865, the law freed 4 million African-American slaves, made the Kansas/Nebraska Act moot, and forever banned slavery. Lincoln concluded his 'masterly effort' that day in Winchester with a profound prediction about the union, one he repeated later in Peoria, "We shall have so saved it (from slavery), that the millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed to the latest generation."

Sponsored by Citizens of Winchester and Scott County, Illinois, Hardt Pioneer Farms, Inc., Ivan and Doris Hardt, and the Illinois State Historical Society.

Preserving Winchester History

The Stephen Douglas statue in Winchester's town square was created by sculptor Fred M. Torrey in 1929 and was dedicated on July 5, 1930.

The historical marker nearby, inscribed "Lincoln's First Challenge of Douglas and Destiny," was dedicated on August 24, 2013.

The imposing 1885 Scott County Courthouse is still in use today. This building replaced the earlier courthouse in which Lincoln spoke.

The building that formerly housed Winchester's elementary school (1901-1958) was purchased in 2004 and completely renovated. It is now the Old School Museum, home to many artifacts and events pertaining to local history.

The Winchester Historic District, comprising a large portion of the town, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.


Additional Resources

1. Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, National Archives.

2. Stephen A. Douglas Biography, Britannica.

3. Douglas, Stephen Arnold, U.S. House of Representatives.

4. Old School Museum, Winchester.

5. Fraker, Guy. (2012). Lincoln’s Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 KT Dunn

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