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Film to Explore the Moments Before the Lincoln-Douglas Debate in Galesburg

Jun 3, 2019

Old Main at Knox College is the only remaining site from the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.  A filmmaker will be there this weekend (June 7, 8, and 9) to record a story about what happened right before the two politicians took to the stage in Galesburg.

“There’s never, in a comprehensive way, been something that wrapped up the story like this. And certainly nothing that is focused specifically on Galesburg and those moments (before the debate),” said Eric Newnham, who is a professional actor from Galesburg.

Newnham wrote the screenplay and will direct the short film (it will be a roughly 30 minute movie). The Prairie Players Civic Theatre in Galesburg is helping out, and Newnham is encouraging the public to come out for the production.

“This is Galesburg’s story. This is Knox County’s story,” Newnham said. “This is not my story. I’m just the blue collar assembly person that’s putting this together.”

Eric Newnham will direct a short film that focuses on the moments before the Lincoln-Douglas debate at Old Main at Knox College.
Credit Rich Egger

Newnham said there are plenty of things people can do to help out, either in front of the camera or behind it. He is especially encouraging anyone with period costumes from the 1850s to come out and participate.

Newnham said Lincoln and Douglas spent about 30 minutes inside Old Main before coming out to speak. However, there is no official record of what happened during that time.

“There is not a lot of conclusive evidence of what was said inside. Old Main was filled. People were so excited to be in there,” said Newnham. “I’ve tried to add context to what made these debates so important. So we talk about the Kansas-Nebraska Act, we talk about the Dred Scott decision by the United States Supreme Court, these issues that people were talking around the table about.”

Plaques on the exterior of Old Main mark the building's historical significance.
Credit Rich Egger

He said he researched the debate extensively and the script is as historically accurate as possible. He said a grant helped him conduct research at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, and he received help from scholars such as Douglas Wilson of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College.

Newnham said post-production on the film will take about a year.  He hopes to screen the premiere in Galesburg and then convince public television stations to show it. He hopes the film reinvigorates interest in the debate and brings tourism to Galesburg.