The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858

Depiction of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

Senator Stephen Douglas had come into the political spotlight through his work in the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had temporarily held the country together but perpetuated the institution of slavery. Douglas, a Democrat, was a force to be reckoned with for keeping a seat in the United States Senate despite the growing strength of the Republican Party throughout the North and in his home state of Illinois. Throughout 1858, a time when the state legislatures elected senators to the United States Senate, Douglas would have to win the support of the people of Illinois, and the Illinois legislature, by debating the issue of slavery, and the future of the country, with the Republican candidate for the Senate, Abraham Lincoln. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 330-31.

By 1858, Douglas had to grapple with his own personal views on the subject of slavery and the subjugation of other races to whites. Primarily, he viewed the preservation of the country as paramount to all other issues, including slavery. See id. at 330. On a personal level, he saw slavery as a “rather shabby, unattractive institution, unworthy of a society as progressive as that of the United States.” Id. at 329. Douglas once said:

Stephen Douglas.

“I hold that under the Constitution of the United States, each state of this Union has a right to do as it pleases on the subject of slavery. In Illinois we have exercised that sovereign right by prohibiting slavery. . . . I approve of that line of policy. . . . We have gone so far as we have a right to go under the Constitution. . . . It is none of our business whether slavery exists in Missouri. . . . Hence I do not choose to occupy the time allotted to me in discussing a question that we have no right to act upon. . . .” Speech at Quincy, Oct. 13, 1858, in Roy P. Basler (ed.), The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols., New Brunswick, N.J., 1953), III, 266-67.

In the wake of the Dred Scott decision and the saga of turmoil in Kansas, Douglas may have chosen to remain publicly silent about those developments, but privately, he could not have been entirely pleased. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 329-30. It was not uncommon for politicians to refrain from publicly commenting, given the differences between many northern Democrats and southern Democrats on the issue of slavery. Some Republicans recognized that Douglas, who had the nickname the Little Giant, could be reasoned with on the issue of slavery as he did not have the outright animosity of his southern counterparts. See id. at 331. Although he was racist and believed in the superiority of whites, he could not permanently support slavery as an institution. As much as this may have inspired Republicans to believe they could work with Douglas, the Republican leadership formally nominated a lawyer from Springfield, a former Whig, and a Representative in the United States House from 1845-1847, Abraham Lincoln. See id.

Depiction of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

Throughout the campaign for the Senate in 1858, Lincoln made 63 speeches, Douglas claimed to make 130 speeches, and they had seven joint debates that took place in the fall of 1858. See id. at 332 citing “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Follett, Foster Edition of a Great Political Document,” Lincoln Herald, XLV (June 1948), 2-11. The candidates engaged in a debate centering on the substance of slavery in towns throughout Illinois such as Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 333. The debates and speeches of the senatorial campaign have been remembered by generations of Americans as “perhaps the most famous local political contest in American history.” Id. Some historians have compared the atmosphere of the Lincoln-Douglas debates to the sporting events of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, where festivities accompanied the debates with band music and a jovial atmosphere. See id.

Depiction of Lincoln Debating Douglas in Charleston, Illinois.

One of the fundamental questions raised in the Lincoln-Douglas debates came from Lincoln in Freeport, where he asked: “Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?” Basler (ed.), Works of Lincoln, III, 43. Historians have noted that Lincoln seldom took action or spoke without having calculated the effects, and this was no exception. He knew that he was presenting Douglas with a dilemma of repudiating the Dred Scott decision at the expense of southern support, which would affect a hypothetical run for the presidency in 1860, or supporting the decision which inherently undermined popular sovereignty, a principle he firmly embraced. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 335. Lincoln expected Douglas to restate what he had already said before, at a speech in Springfield in 1857, that the right of a master to take a slave into a territory remained:

“[B]arren and worthless . . . unless sustained, protected and enforced by appropriate police regulations and local legislation. . . . These regulations . . . must necessarily depend entirely upon the will and wishes of the people of the territory, as they can only be prescribed by the local legislatures.” New York Times, June 23, 1857; George Fort Milton, The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War (Boston, 1934), 260; Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford, 1962), 134.

Douglas predictably responded to Lincoln’s so-called Freeport Question by stating that “slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere unless it is supported by local police regulations.” Basler (ed.), Works of Lincoln, III, 51.

At the heart of their debate was the fundamental difference in how they believed the federal and state governments should deal with the institution of slavery. While Douglas and the Democrats attempted to articulate the constitutional justification for slavery’s existence and perpetuation, Lincoln and the Republicans resisted any prolonging of slavery. Toward the end of the debates with Douglas, Lincoln said:

Abraham Lincoln in 1858.

“The real issue in this controversy—the one pressing upon every mind—is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong. . . . The Republican party . . . look upon it as being a moral, social and political wrong . . . and one of the methods of treating it as a wrong is to make provision that it shall grow no larger. . . . That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.” Lincoln at Alton, in Basler (ed.), Works of Lincoln, III, 312-13, 315.

Douglas, rather than view the debate as a binary decision of right versus wrong, believed that fundamentally, a white man was superior to his black counterpart:

“I do not doubt that he [Lincoln] . . . believes that the Almighty made the Negro equal to the white man. He thinks that the Negro is his brother. I do not think that the Negro is any kin of mine at all. . . . I believe that this government of ours was founded, and wisely founded, upon the white basis. It was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity, to be executed and managed by white men. . . . The Negro is not a citizen, cannot be a citizen, and ought not to be a citizen.” Douglas at Springfield, July 17, 1858, in Paul M. Angle (ed.), Created Equal? The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 (Chicago, 1958), 60, 62, 112.

While Douglas saw other races as inherently inferior to whites, he privately believed the institution of slavery to be too harsh of a form of subordination. However, he did not believe that the issue of slavery had the requisite importance to risk destroying the Union. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 341. Lincoln observed “a physical difference between the white and black races,” which prohibited the two races from living together in complete equality. See id. at 344. However, he believed that so long as they do live together, he was “in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Id. citing Basler (ed.), Works of Lincoln, II, 146; III, 16, 249. While the most ardent abolitionists supported complete equality, Lincoln would not have permitted blacks to serve as jurors, become citizens of Illinois, or have the right to vote. Id. at 344-45. Ultimately, Lincoln for a number of years had advocated the colonization of blacks to Africa, but he also believed in the “separation of the white and black races” within society. See id. at 345 quoting Abraham Lincoln, Speech at Peoria, Oct. 16, 1854, in Basler (ed.), Works of Lincoln, III, 521.

Douglas, in the debates, invoked the spirit of the Founding Fathers to support his positions, saying:

Stephen Douglas.

“It is neither desirable nor possible that there should be uniformity in the local institutions and domestic regulations of the different states of this Union. The framers of our government never contemplated uniformity in its internal concerns. . . . They well understood that the great varieties of soil, of production and of interests, in a republic as large as this, required different local and domestic regulations in each locality. . . . Diversity, dissimilarity, variety in all our local and domestic institutions is the great safeguard of our liberties.” Stephen Douglas at Chicago, July 9, 1858, in Angle (ed.), Created Equal? 18-20.

Lincoln viewed the issue of slavery as presenting a question of values. He viewed slavery “as a moral, social, and political evil,” emphasizing that “[i]f slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Abraham Lincoln, Speech at Galesburg, Oct. 7, 1858, Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864, in Basler (ed.), Works of Lincoln, III, 226; VII, 281. He believed that all races were equal, and he believed that the statement in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal was the foremost authority for such a principle. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 342. However, recognizing that the Constitution itself protected slavery with the Fugitive Slave Clause, located at Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3, he did not imagine the full abolition of slavery for another hundred years. Id. at 344. Partially, this was due to the fact that Lincoln did not know what would happen to free black men, saying in Ottawa in 1858: “If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do” with the mixing of free blacks and whites in society. Basler (ed.), Works of Lincoln, III, 14-15. It should be noted that many in Illinois carried with them some level of racist beliefs, and Lincoln catered toward those individuals. Privately, it was much more difficult to discern prejudice. In fact, he wrote:

Abraham Lincoln in 1858.

“If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—

You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your own interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.” Id. at II, 222-23.

On the campaign trail, one of Lincoln’s principal concerns was the Supreme Court deciding a case similar to Dred Scott, extending the power of the institution of slavery beyond the realm of perpetuation and into the potentiality of expansion:

“What is necessary for the nationalization of slavery? It is simply the next Dred Scott decision. It is merely for the Supreme Court to decide that no State under the Constitution can exclude it, just as they have already decided that under the Constitution neither Congress nor the territorial legislature can do it.” Abraham Lincoln, in Basler (ed.), Works of Lincoln, II, 518.

While there was no threat of such a court decision in 1858, Lincoln had articulated a fear that many abolitionists held. Lincoln’s articulation partially had the effect of painting Douglas as an individual who sought to spread slavery throughout the states, which was not the case. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 351.

Most persuasively, Lincoln keenly observed that the South had implicitly recognized the value of their black brethren, despite calling them slaves and treating them as such. He argued:

“While you require me to deny the humanity of the negro, I wish to ask whether you of the south yourselves, have ever been willing to do as much? The great majority, south as well as north, have human sympathies, of which they can no more divest themselves than they can of their sensibility to physical pain. These sympathies in the bosoms of the southern people, manifest in many ways, their sense of the wrong of slavery, and their consciousness that after all, there is humanity in the negro. If they deny this, let me address them a few plain questions. In 1820 you joined the north, almost unanimously, in declaring the African slave trade piracy, and in annexing to it the punishment of death. Why did you do this? If you did not feel that it was wrong, why did you join in providing that men should be hung for it? The practice was no more than bringing wild negroes from Africa, to sell to such as would buy them. But you never thought of hanging men for catching and selling wild horses, wild buffaloes or wild bears.” Abraham Lincoln, Speech at Peoria, Oct. 16, 1854, in Basler (ed.), Works of Lincoln, II, 264.

As the historian David Potter noted: “[b]y a static analysis, Lincoln was a mild opponent of slavery and a moderate defender of racial discrimination. By a dynamic analysis, he held a concept of humanity which impelled him inexorably in the direction of freedom and equality.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 354. Douglas, on the other hand, had revealed through his speeches and debates that he did not believe blacks to be deserving of the attention and effort to make a more pronounced issue of slavery. See id.

Depiction of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

On November 2, 1858, Douglas prevailed 46 legislators to Lincoln’s 41 legislators. Lincoln, despite his best efforts in articulating a platform that would appeal to the racist tendencies of his state, did not win the senatorial election. Instead, Douglas would return to the Senate with the benefit of re-election going into the campaign leading up to the Election of 1860. However, Lincoln had earned himself a reputation for pragmatic, thoroughly-reasoned positions that garnered national attention. For a former Representative and a man who had not held public office for a significant period of time, Lincoln had boosted himself into the spotlight and postured himself well for making a run for the presidency in 1860. While Douglas had done enough to capture the short term victory and prevail in the senatorial election in Illinois, Lincoln had planted the seeds for a platform that would serve him extraordinarily well in the Election of 1860 and bring him to the presidency when the country was on the brink of Civil War, divided over the very issues that Lincoln and Douglas had dissected for months.


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