LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES, seven joint debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas during the 1858 senatorial election campaign in Illinois. The debates marked the culmination of a political rivalry that had its origin twenty-five years before, when both were aspiring politicians in the Illinois legislature. Their careers had followed divergent tracks in the political culture of nineteenth-century America—Lincoln, the Henry Clay Whig espousing a broad program of national centralization and authority and distrustful of the new mass democracy, and Douglas, the Andrew Jackson Democrat standing for local self-government and states' rights, with an abiding faith in the popular will. By 1858, both had become deeply involved in the sectional conflict between the slave and free states over the status of slavery in the creation of western territories and the admission of new states. Douglas, seeking reelection to a third term in the U.S. Senate, had fifteen years of national experience and notoriety behind him and was widely known for his role in the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and his authorship of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Lincoln, a spokesman for the new antislavery Republican Party, whose experience save for one term in the House of Representatives had been limited to several terms in the Illinois legislature, was virtually unknown outside the boundaries of the state.
From the beginning, the campaign assumed national significance. Douglas, with Republican support, was at that moment leading the opposition in Congress to the southern effort to admit Kansas as a slave state under the fraudulent Lecompton Constitution. To the southern slave power and its ally in the White House, President James Buchanan, Douglas's defeat for reelection was essential to the extension of slavery, a cause recently given constitutional sanction by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision. At the same time, influential Republican leaders in the eastern states regarded Douglas's reelection as necessary to the success of their effort to keep slavery from expanding into new territories. Because the stakes were high, the contest between Douglas and Lincoln attracted widespread attention.
Lincoln opened the campaign in Springfield, the state capital, on 16 June 1858, when he delivered what has been hailed as the most important statement of his career, the "House Divided" speech. It was a strident call for Republican unity against what he described as a slave power conspiracy, of which Douglas was the principal conspirator, to extend slavery throughout the territories and free states of the Union. Moving away from his earlier conservative position, opposing the extension of slavery while tolerating it in the states where it already existed, Lincoln assumed a more radical stance. The conflict between freedom and slavery, he argued, was irrepressible and incapable of compromise, and would not cease until slavery should be placed in the course of "ultimate extinction," an abolitionist argument in everything but name. "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Douglas returned to Illinois from his Senate seat in Washington, where he had been leading the fight against the Lecompton Constitution, and on 9 July, in Chicago,
he opened his campaign for reelection. In defense of his role in the struggle to keep slavery out of Kansas, Douglas cited the "great principle of self-government" upon which he had based his political beliefs, "the right of the people in each State and Territory to decide for themselves their domestic institutions" (including slavery), or what he called popular sovereignty.
Lincoln's House Divided speech and Douglas's Chicago speech provided the themes and arguments for the debates that followed. Seven joint debates were agreed upon, one in each of the state's congressional districts except the two in which the candidates had already spoken. Beginning in late August and extending to the middle of October, debates were scheduled in Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton. Thousands of spectators flocked to the debate sites to hear the candidates, railroads offered special excursion tickets, and the pageantry of election campaigns was provided by parades, brass bands, and glee clubs. On the platforms, Lincoln and Douglas offered a striking contrast, Lincoln standing six feet four inches tall, with patient humility, serious and persuasive, and Douglas a foot shorter at five feet four inches, animated, bold, and defiant. Rarely, if ever, had two candidates for the position of U.S. senator taken their arguments directly to the people, for senators were elected by the state legislatures until 1913.
The debates elicited little that was new and unexpected. Each spent considerable time in accusations and denials, typical of nineteenth-century stump speaking, their arguments often ambiguous and inconsistent. Lincoln repeated his conspiracy charge against Douglas, while at the same time dramatizing the split between Douglas and the South on the Lecompton issue. When he pointed out the inconsistency of Douglas's popular sovereignty with the Dred Scott decision, Douglas responded with what became known as the Freeport Doctrine, the right of a territory to exclude slavery by "unfriendly legislation" regardless of what the Supreme Court might decide. When Douglas charged Lincoln with harboring views of racial equality, Lincoln replied with emphatic denials. For Lincoln, slavery was a moral, social, and political evil, a position he reinforced with an appeal to the equality clause of the Declaration of Independence. The contest was but part of the eternal struggle between right and wrong that would not cease until the evil—slavery—was restricted and placed on the path toward extinction. Douglas found a dangerous radicalism in Lincoln's stand that would lead to disunion and a disastrous sectional war. Only by treating slavery as a matter of public policy, to be decided by the right of every community to decide the question for itself, could the Union be saved.
On 2 November 1858, Illinois voters gave the Democrats a legislative majority, which in turn elected Douglas to a third term in the Senate. Lincoln, although defeated, won recognition throughout the North that by 1860 placed him on the path to the presidency. Douglas, in winning reelection, alienated the South and weakened his power in the Senate. The debates—the specter of Lincoln's "ultimate extinction" of slavery and Douglas's threat to slavery's expansion in the territories—intensified the conflict between the slaveholding states and the free states of the North, placing the cherished Union itself in jeopardy. Douglas's worst fears were about to be realized.
Angle, Paul M., ed. Created Equal: The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
"Lincoln-Douglas Debates." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/lincoln-douglas-debates
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