The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

During what can be described as one of the most pivotal times of its history, the United States witnessed monumental debates between two contenders for the seat in the Senate – Abraham Lincoln and Steexternal image douglas_&_lincoln._final_1234198077.jpgphen A. Douglas. Known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, the debates took place in seven of the nine districts of Illinois from the month of August to October. Just years before the breakout of the Civil War, Lincoexternal image debatemap.jpgln and Douglas went head-to-head over the expansion of slavery into territories, as well as the rights of African Americans – both free and slave.

August 21, 1858
First debate: Ottawa
August 27, 1858
Second debate: Freeport
September 15, 1858
Third debate: Jonesboro
September 18, 1858
Fourth debate: Charleston
October 7, 1858
Fifth debate: Galesburg
October 13, 1858
Sixth debate: Quincy
October 15, 1858
Seventh and final debate: Alton
Format of the Debates
The debates were split up into three different sections; an hour speech by the first debater, an hour and a half rebuttal by the second debater, and a half hour response to the rebuttal by the first debater. Since the first debater has the advantage, the candidates alternated who began at every race. Douglas being the incumbent, opened four of the seven debates, while Lincoln started at the other three.

Important History Leading Up to the Debates

Missouri Compromise (1820): In 1819, Missouri applied for statehood as a slave state. However, this would disrupt the balance of equality between free and slave states in the Senate. After James Tallmadge Jr.’s proposal of two amendments failed in the Senate, Maine also sought statehood. The compromise was created to allow both states admittance to the union while drawing a line of demarcation on the 36°30’ Parallel, which “forever” prohibited slavery above this line. This effectively separated the free North from the slave South.
Map of the United States. / Varle, Charles P. / 1817
Map of the United States. / Varle, Charles P. / 1817

Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854): With the creation of this act, Stephen Douglas sought to end the struggle between the North and South over westward expansion. He proposed the concept of popular sovereignty, which would allow the people of the territory to decide the status of the states to be either free or slave. This act repealed Section 8 of the Missouri Compromise:

“And be it further enacted, that in all that territory ceded by France to the United States under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude, not included within the limits of the state contemplated by this act, slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the parties shall have been duly convicted, shall be, and is hereby, forever prohibited"

In simpler terms, the Kansas-Nebraska Act declared this section of the Missouri Compromise, prohibiting slavery north of the 36°30’ Parallel and west of the Mississippi River, to be void. Not only was this a decisive piece of legislation for the future of slavery in the western territories, it was drastically opposed by the North who vowed to never forgive Douglas.

"It is the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any State or Territory, or to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject not to the Federal Constitution." (Quote from Douglas' opening speech at Ottawa on August 21)

Dred Scott Decision (1857): Chief Justice Roger Taney of the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the ruling of the Missouri Supreme Court that gave a slave in a free state freedom after his master died where he was then transferred to another master. Taney declared this interfered with the 5th Amendment, stating due process of law was required to remove somebody from their property. He then proclaimed the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because it could not give authority to the government or anyone to forbid the existence of slavery.

Quotes from the Debates
"In 1854, Mr. Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Trumbull entered into an arrangement, one with the other, and each with his respective friends, to dissolve the old Whig party on the one hand, and to dissolve the old Democratic party on the other, and to connect the members of both into an Abolition party, under the name and disguise of a Republican party." (Douglas at Ottawa, August 21)

"The first thing I see fit to notice, is the fact that Judge Douglas alleges, after running through the history of the old Democratic and the old Whig parties, that Judge Trumbull and myself made an arrangement in 1854, by which I was to have the place of Gen. Shields in the United States Senate, and Judge Trumbull was to have the place of Judge Douglas. Now, all I have to say upon that subject is, that I think no man - not even Judge Douglas - can prove it, because it is not true. (Lincoln's rebuttal to Douglas' accusations at Ottawa)

"In my speeches I confined myself closely to those three positions which he had taken, controverting his proposition that this Union could not exist as our fathers made it, divided into free and slave States, controverted his proposition of a crusade against the Supreme Court because of the Dred Scott decision, and controverting his proposition that the Declaration of Independence included and meant the negroes as well as the white men, when it declared all men to be created equal. I supposed at that time that these propositions constituted a distinct issue between us, and that the opposite positions we had taken upon them we would be willing to be held to in every part of the Senate, I never intended to waver one hair's breadth from that issue either in the north or the south, or wherever I should address the people of Illinois." (Douglas' opening speech at the seventh joint debate in Alton on October 15)

"You have heard him frequently allude to my controversy with him in regard to the Declaration of Independence. I confess that I have had a struggle with Judge Douglas on that matter, and I will try briefly to place myself in regard to it on the occasion." (Lincoln's rebuttal to Douglas' speech in Alton)

Abraham Lincoln was born to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln in Hardin County, Kentucky on February 1external image 061221225103_abraham_lincoln_lg1.jpg2th, 1809. Lincoln was born under the social ban, what would now be considered significantly below the poverty line. His parents were uneducated and led country lives. The few schools that existed in the vicinity did not offer much more than simple reading and writing, but Thomas Lincoln sent his seven year old son to school in hopes that he would learn something. Having learned to write, young Abraham Lincoln put his skills to practice whenever he was given the opportunity. He would eventually become the neighbors’ letter-writer when he and his family moved to Spencer County, Indiana in 1816. This move and his newly acquired responsibility molded not only his proficiency at writing but also increased his ability to express the thoughts and wishes of those for whom he was writing. In 1818, Abraham experienced the death of his mother, who is said to have had a great influence on his intellect and character due to her custom of having the family read the Scriptures of the Bible on Sundays. This gave Abraham a more than fair understanding of Bible history and teachings. The rarity of books in his circumstances caused him to be greatly influenced by the few he hexternal image PicImg_Lincoln_And_Douglas_c69c.jpgad access to. Books such as Life of Franklin and Weems’ Washington shaped many of his theories on freedom and liberty. Growing into manhood, school again, played a very small role, but it would be his own laborious toil and the words of backwoods preachers that would have bearing on his character. In March of 1830, at the age of 21, Abraham and his family departed on their way to Illinois in hopes of attaining better circumstances through the promises offered by the land. Once in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln held various positions from making election rails to being an entrusted flat-boatman and traveling to New Orleans to managing a store. Through this, Lincoln gained popularity as a relatively cultured and knowledgeable, hardworking man. He would eventually be chosen as captain for a sector of volunteers fighting in the Black Hawk War.
It was Lincoln's rearing that had an enormous effect on how he partook in the political arena and in the values he upheld. His upbringing allowed him to have a great sensitivity toward the working class and the impoverished. This was extremely pivotal in his stance during the Lincoln-Douglas debates because he knew that if slavery was allowed to continue into the Western territories, it could undermine the land from the poor working farmers in exchange for rich slave-owners. Lincoln also made another important acknowledgement in his mission to keep the slavery contained when he repeatedly mentioned that while he would try with all his strength to stick to what he believed was right, it was ultimately
God’s will that would prevail.

Poll Question #1
Yes (%)
No (%)
If you lived during this time, would you have supported Lincoln?

Named after his father, Stephen Arnold Douglas was born April 23, 1813 in Brandon, Vermont. After his father’s early death Sarah Fisk, his mother, moved with her two young children to her brother’s farm. At Edward Fisk’s farm, Stephen worked 8-9 months a year. For 3 months of each year he attended classes at the Arnold District School where he excelled at math and Latin grammar. In 1828 Stephen decided he wanted to make something of himself and moved to Middlebury to work for a cabinetmaker named Nahum Parkerexternal image stephenarnolddouglas.jpg. Although he only stayed 8 months before returning home, it was here that he developed his political views. Once back in Brandon, he studied at the Brandon Academy until 1830 when he moved to New York with his mother and her new husband Gehazi Granger. His stepfather enrolled him into the Canandaigua Academy where he continued his interest in politics. Stephen participated in debates, and was often found defending Andrew Jackson. Through his friends at Canandaigua, he made many connections to political leaders of the time. After 3 years at the academy, Douglas moved on to study law at the office of Walter and Levi Hubbell. However, he did not have the money to continue into a 4-year program, which would allow him to take the bar, and so at the age of 20, he decided to move west.

After a few stops, Douglas ended up in Cleveland. It was here that he met Attorney Sherlock J. Andrews. Andrews offered to let Stephen use his library and office to continue studying law, since it only took 1 year of study for admission for the bar in Ohio. However, he became violently ill and was confined to bed for 3-4 months. Although he had many friends in Cleveland, Douglas decided to continue on his journey and ended up in Jacksonville, Illinois. While in Jacksonville, he met Joseph Heslep, who offered him lodging, and Murray McConnel. McConnel encouraged Douglas to travel to Pekin and set up a law office there. Maurray told him that he could acquire a license later on, and helped Stephen get a library started. On his way up to Pekin, his plans changed again and he ended up in Winchester where he started a school and handled minor legal affairs. Douglas returned to Jacksonville in 1834 and became the Morgan County State's Attorney. As state's attorney, he traveled around the circuit, going to all 8 counties, representing the citizens of Illinois in criminal prosecutions.

Douglas was among the first to propose that Illinois support the convention system, which would elect candidates by party, instead of a man simply announcing he was running for office. At the time, Douglas had no intention of running for office, but after John J. Hardin, the man whom Douglas has taken the State Attorney position from, was announced to be running for office the democrats decided that Douglas had to oppose him again. In 1836, Douglas ended up w
Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen A. Douglas
inning in the second position for the Illinois state legislature. At only 23, he was the youngest to be elected. During his time in the legislature, he became good friends with James Shields, who would later represent Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri in the United States legislature. Just a year later he was elected to be registrar of the land office in the new capital city of Springfield. Foreshadowing events to come, Douglas campaigned for Martin Van Buren in the 1840 election, and debated against Abraham Lincoln, who was campaigning for William Henry Harrison. During this year, he was also appointed Secretary of State in Illinois for a few months before being elected judge of the Supreme Court of Illinois in 1841. He held this position until 1843, when he was elected to the United States House of Representatives.

Although he was one of the youngest members, his support of Jackson brought him attention. As early as 1845, he was already bringing up ideas that would later form into his concept of "Popular Sovereignty". This was brought up during the discussion of the annexation of Texas, and he suggested that states should be able to cho
Douglas' handwritten letter to Lincoln listing the places, dates, and times of the debates
ose to be free or slave. After serving 3 years in the House, Douglas moved on to the Senate where he would serve until his death in 1861. In December of 1847, he was made chairman of the Senate committee on Territories. Another big event of 1847 was Douglas's marriage to Martha Martin, which gave Douglas a connection to the South. Martha also had a family history in politics. In 1850, Douglas and Henry Clay drafted the Compromise of 1850, which would help to settle problems that arose from the Mexican-American War. In 1852, Douglas tried his first attempt to run for presidency. However, at the convention he came in third and Franklin Pierce was nominated. After this, he was re-elected to the Senate for his second term. Shortly after the loss of the nomination by the democratic party, Douglas's wife died. He was deeply saddened and took an extended trip to Europe to escape and to learn more about national affairs. When he returned, the Nebraska Bill was introduced in the Senate which would occupy his intention until the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed later in the year.

In 1856, Douglas again attempted to receive a nomination from the Democratic Party for the presidency, but was unsuccessful. Later on in the year, he married Adele Cutts who took over the motherly role for his two sons. Douglas founded the University of Chicago in 1857. The next year would be a busy one for Douglas, as he debated Lincoln in 7 debates all throughout Illinois. Although Douglas won the election to Senate that year, he would later lose the presidency to Lincoln in 1860. In 1861, Douglas died from typhoid fever.

Poll Question #2
Yes (%)
No (%)
If you lived during this time, would you have supported Douglas?

Opposing Social Views

"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy."
- Abraham Lincoln

Not only was the issue of slavery and westward expansion a political issue, it also had a prominent social nature that contributed to the different outlooks of Lincoln and Douglas. One such outlook that was continually brought up by Lincoln, but largely avoided by Douglas, had to do with the morality of the institution of slavery. Having claimed that, “Slavery was founded on both injustice and bad policy,” Lincoln appealed largely to Jefferson’s idea that “all men are created equal,” and attributed this quote to the rights of African Americans as well as whites. Although there is nothing in the Declaration of Independence that prohibits slavery, Lincoln recognized that the goal of the founding fathers was the evIMG_0002.jpgentual demise of the economic institution. For this he fought and believed the ultimate destruction of slavery was a matter of national obligation, not something to be decided on an individual basis. On the other hand, Douglas thought slavery was an issue of local responsibility to which he propelled his idea of Popular Sovereignty with great energy.

Poll Question #3
Yes (%)
No (%)
Do you think the debates had a significant impact on how the world views the United States today?

Poll Question #4
Political (%)

From the viewpoint of Americans at the time, do you think the debate on slavery was more of a political issue or a moral issue?
Election Outcome

Popular Vote:
125,430 - 121,609 ---> Lincoln

Legislature Vote:
54 - 46 ---> Douglas

Political cartoon of the race between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

Slavery was a huge issue in the United States and was the main topic of discussion during the 7 debates. This was important because it examined the place of blacks in a society dominated by whites. Lincoln stated that blacks were created equal to whites and should enjoy all the same rights. This was a very bold statement at the time because it made slavery into a moral issue. He stated that slavery was causing divisions between the north and south and that the nation would not be able to continue if they were divided over this issue. Douglas endorsed the popular sovereignty position, which said that each state should be able to decide it’s own position on the issue of slavery. However, this angered northerners because it meant that slavery could potentially cross over the Mason Dixon line. This took away votes in the popular vote, but Douglas was still able to win the seat in Senate by the legislative vote. The candidate’s views on the issue of slavery were very important because it not only affected the outcome of the race for the Senate seat, it also would affect the presidential race of 1860.
external image lincoln-douglas.jpg
Douglas’ position in the Lincoln-Douglas debates ended up causing a division in the Democratic Party. While this did help the Republican Party, Lincoln’s performance in the debates was extremely significant. Firstly, the debates put Lincoln in front of other significant Republicans in Illinois who would have ran for the presidency. It also increased his stature nation-wide. Where he had once been a potential candidate for Vice President, the attention brought on by the debates made many believe he would be a good Presidential choice for the Republicans. When it came time for the election, Lincoln was said to have “swept” the north, which was directly related to northerner’s opposition to Douglas’s sovereignty position.

Besides the great impact the debates had in the years following, they still have an effect on politics in our nation today. The Lincoln-Douglas debates set a precedent for future races because it was the first of its kind. It was not only the first time opponents had publically debated each other; it was also the beginning of candidates speaking directly to the people. Until 1913, the state legislator elected senators, but Lincoln and Douglas aimed their efforts at the people. Politicians in the future would pick up on this practice and aim their thoughts and ideas to the people. And while the format has changed, candidates still meet in public places to debate their platforms.

Poll Question #5
Yes (%)
No (%)
Do you care about the Lincoln-Douglas debates?

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Kranz, Henry B. Abraham Lincoln a New Portrait. New York: Putnam, 1959. Print.
Lincoln, Abraham, Stephen A. Douglas, and Robert Walter Johannsen. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858,. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. Print.
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