|Portrait photographs of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and Stephen A. Douglas in 1859.
Did You Know? After moving to Illinois in 1833, Stephen A. Douglas briefly courted Mary Todd, who went on to marry his future rival, Abraham Lincoln.At the time, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures; thus Lincoln and Douglas were trying for their respective parties to win control of the Illinois legislature. The debates previewed the issues that Lincoln would face in the aftermath of his victory in the 1860 presidential election. Although Illinois was a free state, the main issue discussed in all seven debates was slavery in the United States.
In agreeing to the official debates, Lincoln and Douglas decided to hold one debate in each of the nine congressional districts in Illinois. Because both had already spoken in two — Springfield and Chicago — within a day of each other, they decided that their "joint appearances" would be held only in the remaining seven districts. The debates were held in seven towns in the state of Illinois:
- Ottawa on August 21st
- Freeport on August 27th
- Jonesboro on September 15th
- Charleston on September 18th
- Galesburg on October 7th
- Quincy on October 13th
- Alton on October 15th
After losing the election for Senator in Illinois, Lincoln edited the texts of all the debates and had them published in a book. The widespread coverage of the original debates and the subsequent popularity of the book led eventually to Lincoln's nomination for President of the United States by the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago.
The format for each debate was: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute "rejoinder." The candidates alternated speaking first. As the incumbent, Douglas spoke first in four of the debates. Stephen Douglas was first elected to the United States Senate in 1846. In 1858, he was seeking re-election for a third term. During his time in the Senate, the issue of slavery was raised several times, particularly with respect to the Compromise of 1850. As chairman of the committee on territories, Douglas argued for an approach to slavery termed popular sovereignty; electorates at a local level would vote whether to adopt or reject a state constitution which prohibited slavery. Decisions about whether slavery was permitted or prohibited within certain states and territories had been made previously at a federal level. Douglas was successful with passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act in 1854. Abraham Lincoln, like Douglas, had also been elected to Congress in 1846. He served one two-year term in the House of Representatives. During his time in the House, Lincoln disagreed with Douglas and supported the Wilmot Proviso, which sought to ban slavery in new territory. Lincoln returned to politics in the 1850s to oppose the Kansas–Nebraska Act, and help develop the new Republican party.
Before the debates, Lincoln said that Douglas was encouraging fears of amalgamation of the races with enough success to drive thousands of people away from the Republican Party. Douglas tried to convince, especially the Democrats, that Lincoln was an abolitionist for saying that the American Declaration of Independence did apply to blacks as well as whites. Lincoln called a self-evident truth "the electric cord ... that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together", of different ethnic backgrounds.
Lincoln argued in his House Divided Speech that Douglas was part of a conspiracy to nationalize slavery. Lincoln said that ending the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in Kansas and Nebraska was the first step in this direction, and that the Dred Scott decision was another step in the direction of spreading slavery into Northern territories. Lincoln expressed the fear that the next Dred Scott decision would make Illinois a slave state.
|U.S. Postage Stamp issued in 1958 commemorating the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
There were partisan remarks, such as Douglas' accusations that members of the "Black Republican" party, such as Lincoln, were abolitionists. Douglas cited as proof Lincoln's House Divided Speech in which he said, " I believe this government cannot endure permanently half Slave and half Free." Douglas also charged Lincoln with opposing the Dred Scott decision because "it deprives the negro of the rights and privileges of citizenship." Lincoln responded that "the next Dred Scott decision" could allow slavery to spread into free states. Douglas accused Lincoln of wanting to overthrow state laws that excluded blacks from states such as Illinois, which were popular with the northern Democrats. Lincoln did not argue for complete social equality. However, he did say Douglas ignored the basic humanity of blacks, and that slaves did have an equal right to liberty. Lincoln said he himself did not know how emancipation should happen. He believed in colonization, but admitted that this was impractical. Without colonization he said that it would be wrong for emancipated slaves to be treated as "underlings," but that there was a large opposition to social and political equality, and that "a universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded." Lincoln said that Douglas' public indifference to slavery would result in the expansion of slavery because it would mold public sentiment to accept slavery. Lincoln said Douglas "cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up," and that, in the words of Henry Clay, he would "blow out the moral lights around us" and eradicate the love of liberty.
At the debate at Freeport, Lincoln forced Douglas to choose between two options, either of which would damage Douglas' popularity and chances of getting reelected. Lincoln asked Douglas to reconcile popular sovereignty with the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision. Douglas responded that the people of a territory could keep slavery out even though the Supreme Court said that the federal government had no authority to exclude slavery, simply by refusing to pass a slave code and other legislation needed to protect slavery. Douglas alienated Southerners with this Freeport Doctrine, which damaged his chances of winning the Presidency in 1860. As a result, Southern politicians would use their demand for a slave code for territories such as Kansas to drive a wedge between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party. In splitting what was the majority political party in 1858 (the Democratic Party), Southerners guaranteed the election of Lincoln, the nominee of the newly formed Republican Party, in 1860.
Douglas' efforts to gain support in all sections of the country through popular sovereignty failed. By allowing slavery where the majority wanted it, he lost the support of Republicans led by Lincoln who thought Douglas was unprincipled. By defeating a pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution and advocating a Freeport Doctrine to stop slavery in Kansas where the majority were anti-slavery, he lost the support of the South.
Before the debate at Charleston, Democrats held up a banner that read "Negro equality" with a picture of a white man, a negro woman and a mulatto child. At this debate Lincoln went further than before in denying the charge that he was an abolitionist. While denying abolitionist tendencies was effective politics, the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass remarked on Lincoln's "entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race." In spite of Lincoln's denial of abolitionist tendencies, Stephen Douglas charged Lincoln with having an ally in Frederick Douglass in preaching "abolition doctrines." Stephen Douglas said that "the negro" Frederick Douglass told "all the friends of negro equality and negro citizenship to rally as one man around Abraham Lincoln." Stephen Douglas also charged Lincoln with a lack of consistency when speaking on the issue of racial equality, and cited Lincoln's previous statements that the declaration that all men are created equal applies to blacks as well as whites.
Lincoln said that slavery expansion endangered the Union, and mentioned the controversies caused by it in Missouri in 1820, in the territories conquered from Mexico that led to the Compromise of 1850, and again with the Bleeding Kansas controversy over slavery. Lincoln said that the crisis would be reached and passed when slavery was put "in the course of ultimate extinction." At Galesburg Douglas sought again to prove that Lincoln was an abolitionist. At Alton, Lincoln tried to reconcile his statements on equality. Lincoln contrasted his support for the Declaration with opposing statements made by the Southern politician John C. Calhoun and Senator John Pettit of Indiana, who called the Declaration "a self-evident lie." Lincoln said that Chief Justice Roger Taney (in his Dred Scott decision) and Stephen Douglas were opposing Thomas Jefferson's self-evident truth, dehumanizing blacks and preparing the public mind to think of them as only property. Lincoln thought slavery had to be treated as a wrong, and kept from growing. Lincoln used a number of colorful phrases in the debates, such as when he said that one argument by Douglas made a horse chestnut into a chestnut horse, and compared an evasion by Douglas to the sepia cloud from a cuttlefish. Lincoln said that Douglas' Freeport Doctrine was a do-nothing sovereignty that was "as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death." The October surprise of the election was the endorsement of the Democrat Douglas by former Whig John J. Crittenden. Former Whigs comprised the biggest block of swing voters, and Crittenden's endorsement of Douglas rather than Lincoln, also a former Whig, reduced Lincoln's chances of winning.
On election day, the Democrats won 40 seats in the state house of Representatives, and the Republicans won 35. In the state senate, Republicans held 11 seats, and Democrats held 14. Stephen A. Douglas was reelected by the legislature, 54-46, even though Abraham Lincoln won the popular vote with a percentage of 50.6%, or by 3,402 votes. However, the widespread media coverage of the debates greatly raised Lincoln's national profile, making him a viable candidate for nomination as the Republican candidate in the upcoming 1860 presidential election. He would go on to secure both the nomination and the presidency, beating Douglas (as the Northern Democratic candidate), among others, in the process.
Lincoln also went on to be in contact with editors looking to publish the debate texts. George Parsons, the Ohio Republican committee chairman, got Lincoln in touch with Ohio's main political publisher, Follett and Foster, of Columbus. They published copies of the text, and titled the book, Political Debates Between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas in the Celebrated Campaign of 1858, in Illinois. Four printings were made, and the fourth sold 16,000 copies.
The Lincoln–Douglas debate format that is used in high school and college competition today is named after this series of debates. Modern presidential debates trace their roots to the Lincoln–Douglas Debates, though the format today is remarkably different from the original.
The first photo is composite image of portrait photographs of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, Lincoln in 1860 Douglas in 1859. The second photo is U.S. Postage, 1958 issue, commemorating the Lincoln and Douglas debates.
By Project Gutenberg
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.