From August to October 1858, Abraham Lincoln, Illinois Republican candidate for the United States Senate, faced outgoing Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas in a series of seven debates. Thousands of spectators and journalists from across the country watched the two fight over the main issue facing the nation then: slavery and the battle for its expansion into new territories.
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Context and context of the debates
As the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska law, Douglas was one of the country’s foremost politicians and considered a future presidential candidate. The controversial law of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise and established the doctrine of popular sovereignty, whereby each new territory joining the Union would decide for itself whether it would become a free state or a slave state.
Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska law had brought Lincoln, a lawyer and former Whig congressman to office, back into the political arena. He started a race for the Senate in early 1855, but withdrew to make way for another candidate.
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By 1858 Lincoln was the foremost leader of the new Illinois Republican Party and the obvious choice to run against Douglas. He started his campaign in earnest with a speech in Springfield in June, in which he said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand … this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free” .
Seven debates, seven congressional districts
Lincoln and Douglas met in seven debates between August and October 1858, located in different congressional districts of the state. In total, they traveled over 4,000 miles during the Senate campaign. While Lincoln traveled by rail, horse-drawn carriage, or boat, Douglas boarded a private train equipped with a cannon that fired a shot whenever he arrived in a new location.
Each debate followed the same structure: an opening statement of one hour by one candidate, a response of one and a half hours by the other candidate and a half-hour reply by the first candidate. Despite their length and often tedious format, the debates became a huge spectacle, attracting up to 20,000 people. Thanks to the many reporters and stenographers in attendance, and new technologies such as the telegraph and railroad, the candidates’ arguments gained national attention and would fundamentally alter the national debate on slavery and the rights of black Americans.
Douglas and the Freeport Doctrine
Physical contrast aside, Lincoln was tall, lanky and crumpled; Douglas short, stocky and clad in expensive suits, the two represented starkly opposing views on the issues at hand. From their first debate on August 21 in Ottawa, Douglas accused Lincoln of running on a radically anti-slavery “Black Republican” platform and attempted to link him to prominent abolitionists like Frederick Douglass.
Lincoln attacked Douglas for his support for the notorious 1857 Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott case, which denied citizenship to all blacks, slaves or free, and accused him of seeking to legalize slavery in all United States. During the second debate, on August 27 in Freeport, Lincoln asked Douglas whether or not popular sovereignty allowed settlers to exclude slavery of a territory before it joined the Union. Douglas said yes, noting that the territories could choose not to enforce Dred Scott by denying the protection of slave owners under local law. Known as the Freeport Doctrine, this position alienated many Southerners and would come back to haunt Douglas during his presidential run of 1860.
Douglas supported the idea (common to Jacksonian Democrats) that power was best exercised at the local level. In contrast, Lincoln argued that only the federal government had the power to abolish slavery.
Divergent views on race
Douglas has repeatedly attacked Lincoln’s supposed radical views on race, claiming his opponent would not only grant freed slaves citizenship rights, but allow black men to marry white women (an idea that horrified many. White Americans) and that his views would put the nation in an inevitable predicament. way to war. Lincoln replied that he had “no goal of introducing political and social equality between white and black races” and that “a physical difference between the two” would likely prevent them from living in “perfect equality” . Although he believed slavery was morally wrong, Lincoln made it clear that he shared the belief in white supremacy held by Douglas and almost all white Americans at the time.
But while Douglas argued that the nation’s founding document was written by white men, who wanted it to apply only to white men, Lincoln argued that “there is no reason in the world for that the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights listed in The Declaration of Independence. ”Although he assured the southerners that he did not intend to interfere with slavery where he already existed, he argued that the Founding Fathers – many of whom enslaved – saw the institution of slavery as a moral evil that ultimately had to go away.
READ MORE: What Abraham Lincoln thought about slavery
Impact of the Lincoln-Douglas debates
In the election held in November 1858, Lincoln and other Republican candidates won 53 percent of the statewide vote. But the congressional districts represented in the Illinois legislature at the time favored Democrats, and the state legislature chose to return Douglas to the Senate.
Despite his loss, Lincoln’s dominating performance in debates with Douglas, and his eloquent and bold statement of the Republican Party’s position on slavery, established him as a figure of national significance. Over the next two years, he would refine his arguments on the morality of slavery in speeches across the country, becoming the black-horse Republican candidate in the 1860 presidential election.
Meanwhile, the Douglas Democratic Party continued to divide over the issue of the extension of slavery. Douglas managed to win the Democratic nomination in 1860, but with Southern Democrat backing John Breckenridge, he won only one state: Missouri. Exhausted by the campaign, as well as by his efforts to rally Northern Democrats to the Union cause at the start of the Civil War, Douglas died in June 1861 at the age of 48.
Fergus M. Bordewich, “How Lincoln Defeated Douglas in Their Famous Debates.” Smithsonian, September 2008.
Eric Foner, The fiery trial: Abraham Lincoln and American slavery (WW Norton, 2010)
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon and Schuster, 2005)