Those Were the Days: Unreal turns back the RFT clock to the Lincoln-Douglas debates

Graham Peck, an associate history professor at Saint Xavier University, has discovered forgotten records of the Lincoln-Douglas exchange at the 1854 Illinois State Fair. Two competing St. Louis, Mo. newspapers, the St. Louis Dispatch and the Riverfront Times, both sent reporters who produced accounts.

— Saint Xavier University media alert, February 10, 2009

Well, color Unreal flabbergasted! We thought the RFT was founded in 1977! Could it be that we're part of the most venerable journalism institution in St. Louis? Could it be that we have lasted even longer than the St. Louis Stock and Tobacco Review and the St. Louis Es Videke, the esteemed Hungarian journal that published weekly from 1913 to 1969 and uncovered the Great Faux Paprika Scandal of 1942?

Strangely, the St. Louis Public Library, the Missouri Historical Society and our own morgue are all bereft of issues of the RFT prior to 1977. But who are we to doubt the word of Professor Peck? Isn't it the historian's job to uncover the past? It's not his fault more than a century of newspapers mysteriously disappeared.

Peck says the Dispatch published 30 pages' worth of Lincoln-Douglas transcription (astounding, given that records show the paper wasn't founded until 1864). But how boring must that have been?!

Herewith, Unreal's attempt to reconstruct Our Ancestral Reporter's reportage:

Our Reporter took the train up to Springfield to see the state fair. He brought a sketch artist with him who rendered many realistic — though gratuitous — illustrations of pig nipples and human ankles. Our Reporter ate a wide variety of fried foods and waxed rhapsodic over recent advances in cheese production.

But it must be said that he spent most of his time in the Yuengling Hospitality Tent, guzzling bottles of sarsaparilla and taking the odd shot of whiskey to sustain him through all the talking that lay ahead. Douglas, then a U.S. Senator, seemed certain to beat Lincoln, formerly a U.S. Congressman but now just a lawyer. Some money may have changed hands, standards of journalistic objectivity being a bit more lax than they are now.

Lincoln commenced orating at 2 p.m. He stood on a stump. He did not shut up for three hours. By nineteenth-century standards, parts of it were riveting. But a ways into hour two, Our Reporter started writing things like, "OK, we don't want slavery in Kansas and Nebraska, so the Kansas-Nebraska Act is bad. We get it already." Stealthily, he made his way back to the hospitality tent for a shot and a sarsaparilla chaser.

Which is why he missed the seminal event of the afternoon, when Douglas threw a hissy fit because his stump was the same height as Lincoln's, even though he (Douglas) was a foot shorter than his adversary. Abe offered to use his old rail-splitting skills to cut Steve another stump. Douglas declined in favor of demonstrating his superior vertical jump, which rendered him, for a split-second, approximately one-and-a-half centimeters taller than his opponent.

Douglas got to start talking at 5 p.m. Because he was rebutting, he only went on for two hours. By then, Our Reporter was beyond bored. He wandered off to the ice cream tent and bravely tried the strawberry variety, which had killed President Zachary Taylor four years earlier. It didn't work.

Editor's note: For an update on the facts behind this monumental discovery, read Unreal's follow-up dispatch, "Setting the Unreal Record Straight."

 
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