Samuel Kirkwood and Augustus Dodge participated in a series of debates during the 1859 campaign for Iowa governor, with slavery as the central issue.
The popularity of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois of 1858 prompted the same forum for the Iowa gubernatorial race. The Republican nominee backed by the platform of opposing the Slave Power was Samuel Jordan Kirkwood, a farmer, miller, and former state senator from Iowa City. The Democratic nominee, pledged to support popular sovereignty (citizens in the territories voting for or against slavery) was Augustus Caesar Dodge, who had been Minister to Spain, U.S. Senator, Registrar of the Land Office in Burlington, and served in the Black Hawk War.
At the first debate, July 29th in Oskaloosa, Dodge arrived late, Kirkwood had been speaking uncontested for three hours. In front of a large crowd, Dodge asked Kirkwood if he would obey the Fugitive Slave Law. Kirkwood responded, “I would not resist the enforcement of that Law but before I would aid in capturing a fugitive slave I would suffer the penalty of the Law, but I would not aid into carrying it into execution.” Kirkwood then asked Dodge the same question. “I would do whatever the law requires me to do,” said Dodge.
According to Louis Pelzer, in the Oskaloosa debate, Kirkwood painted slavery in its darkest colors, while Dodge maintained that slavery, despite its defects, was a civilizing and a christianizing institution. But Dodge took exception to the slave trade. He reportedly sprung to his feet proclaiming that if Kirkwood ever said he was in favor of the slave trade, he would “cram the lie down his throat.”
Two days later in Bloomfield, Kirkwood would bring his dark picture of slavery. He presented a scenario of a runaway slave mother with a baby in her arms being chased by her cruel master and his bloodhounds as she crossed the Iowa-Missouri border. Kirkwood then advanced towards Dodge with clenched fists and demanded to know what Dodge would do in this situation:
“Answer my question!” Kirkwood yelled.
“I would obey the law,” Dodge replied.
“So help me, God, I would suffer my right arm to be torn from its socket before I would do such a monstrous thing,” Kirkwood responded.
The crowd went crazy for Kirkwood.
The seriousness of slavery gave way occasionally to humor. In Chariton on August 4th, Dodge requested that someone from the audience hold the rickety platform, which was made of planks elevated by wooden blocks, as he stepped down. Kirkwood retorted, “I have been trying to convince the General (Dodge) that his platform is rather shaky- that he cannot stand on it very well.”
After the swing through western Iowa, the debates came to eastern Iowa. Even the entrance of the two candidates into the town of Washington on September 2nd presented a stark contrast. Kirkwood arrived on a farmer’s lumber wagon with a hayrack pulled by oxen. Hundreds crowded both sides of the street to welcome Kirkwood, cheering wildly. Dodge arrived later in an expensive shiny carriage pulled by well-bred horses. The cheering for Dodge was not as spirited.
But the level of boisterousness was still high enough before the debate that two men got into a fistfight. More rowdy behavior ensued during the debate when a drunken man “propounded sundry oblivious questions” to Kirkwood. Kirkwood became annoyed with the interruptions and cut him off, remarking, “he was moved by the spirit of democracy.”
The next day in Iowa City, the two candidates were showing the effects of the long campaign. According to Pelzer, Dodge seemed “hoarse and fatigued” and Kirkwood was “worn and anxious” as they spoke on the north side of the Old Capitol building. But they still had more debates ahead of them in Newton, Tipton, Anamosa, Maquoketa, Dubuque, Davenport, Muscatine, Wapello, Fairfield, and other towns.
Finally, on October 11, 1859, Iowans went to the polls to choose a new governor. Kirkwood won by a majority of 3,170 votes. Pelzer surmised that Dodge’s four-year absence in Spain brought him out of touch with Iowans concerning slavery, “the political pendulum of Iowa was swinging farther away from slavery extension…”
- Clark, Dan Elton, Samuel Jordan Kirkwood, State Historical Society of Iowa: Iowa City IA, 1917.
- Pelzer, Louis, Augustus Caesar Dodge, State Historical Society of Iowa: Iowa City IA, 1909.