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Must read: Illinois to re-enact Abraham Lincoln, Douglas debates

FREEPORT, Ill. - This is the 'Pretzel City,' thanks to German bakers who settled here in the 1850s. It's appropriate, given the way a lightweight named Abraham Lincoln twisted up a political colossus here and began cementing his place in American myth.

Lincoln, a longshot candidate for U.S. Senate, debated Stephen A. Douglas on the edge of the rolling northwestern Illinois hills 150 years ago this month, halting the Little Giant's march to the White House and opening its door for the Railsplitter from Springfield.

The 'Freeport Doctrine' that Douglas espoused Aug. 27, 1858 - that states and territories could ban slavery despite a Supreme Court ruling suggesting otherwise - was not a new idea with Douglas, who beat Lincoln and returned to Congress.

But Lincoln forced Douglas to record it for a national audience, solidifying slaveholders' opposition and splitting the Democrats. Add Lincoln's stellar and unexpected performance in seven matchups across Illinois that fall, and influential eastern Republicans were convinced that Lincoln should be their man for president in 1860.

Now, as another U.S. senator from Illinois admired for his oratorical polish - Barack Obama - shoots for the presidency, Illinois is marking Lincoln's rise to the national stage with a sesquicentennial commemoration of the David-and-Goliath showdowns. The festivities will take Lincoln and Douglas re-enactors to each debate site starting this month, with storytellers, parades and dancing at period balls.

The debates played a role in 'determining who we are as a people today,' said Edward Finch, a retired Freeport schoolteacher and chairman of 'Reunion Tour '08,' the statewide celebration.

Freeport certainly has never forgotten. The flavor that topped a local ice-cream parlor's contest for a commemorative confection? 'Lickin' Douglas.'