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Lincoln-Douglas Debates: August 21 to October 15, 1858

In 1858 the Republican party of Illinois overwhelmingly nominated Lincoln to be their candidate for the United States Senate. Lincoln accepted the nomination by giving what would become arguably the most famous acceptance speech for any office in this nation's history. That speech would become known as the House Divided Speech.

Lincoln's opponent in that election was incumbent Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, a powerful and well known politician who had chaired the Senate Committee on Territories. In that position he had been responsible for getting the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854. This Act alone, which provided for Kansas and Nebraska to be organized as territories on the basis of popular sovereignty toward slavery, had been enough to make Douglas's name a household word across the nation. Lincoln, on the other hand, had little recognition outside his home state.

Douglas's fame did not intimidate Lincoln, however, and on July 24, 1858 Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates to take place across the state of Illinois, asking him to “divide time and address the same audiences.” Both men knew slavery would be the top issue in the campaign, and both recognized that the debates would draw national attention. Douglas was disinterested at first but feared that he would be accused of cowardice if he refused. Finally he agreed but suggested that the debates take place in each Illinois Congressional District except the two (Chicago and Springfield) where both had already been. This left seven sites, and Lincoln agreed.

Douglas and Lincoln could not have been more dissimilar. Douglas was short and stocky, Lincoln tall and lanky. Douglas dressed impeccably, Lincoln often appeared rumpled. Douglas's voice was rich and deep, Lincoln's high and thin. Douglas often traveled in a private railroad car, Lincoln traveled any way he could. On at least one occasion he was on a train that was switched onto a siding to sit and wait while Douglas's train passed.

But perhaps there was no more contrast between the two than on the issue of slavery. Douglas blamed the issue of slavery on Northern abolitionists, saying they were simply agitating. He believed that popular sovereignty was an extension of local self-government, and he further believed that giving the federal government more power on the issue of slavery would restrict states rights, individual liberty, and ultimately, damage the Union.

                   Lincoln                                                   Douglas 

Lincoln took a position exactly opposite, believing that the expansion of slavery, if it came about, would be the result of popular sovereignty. A pragmatist, he believed also that the slavery issue would not be resolved until some crisis arose that would either extend slavery into the territories or end it completely. While he did not believe in equality of the races (and most did not in 1858) he did believe that it was immoral to own another person. He tried to assure Southerners that he had no intension of interfering with slavery where it already existed. Few believed him.

The first debate was set for August 21, 1858 in the town of Ottawa, Illinois, a Republican stronghold. Despite the sweltering heat more than 12,000 spectators crowded into Washington Square to hear the two candidates. Many of them had come from Chicago, 80 miles to the northeast. Douglas charged that Lincoln had a plan to abolitionize the Whig and Democratic parties, and that he supported the most radical Republican policies. Accusing Lincoln of taking Mexico’s side in the Mexican War, he said the House Divided Speech. speech was particularly destructive. He played to the audience’s prejudices, saying that Illinois would become a free Negro colony if Lincoln won the election.

For his part, Lincoln denied the charges, saying, “There is a physical difference between the two (races), which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the equal footing of equality . . .” He would repeat this theme throughout the debates. Lincoln is even reported as using the word “nigger” twice, something he rarely did. However, he also stated that Negroes had rights under the Declaration of Independence.

For three hours the debate went on, and when it was over the Republicans in the crowd were sure their man had won. A reporter from the New York Evening Post wrote, "Listening to him (Lincoln), calmly and unprejudiced, I was convinced that he has no superior as a stump speaker."

Six days later the two met again in Freeport, a small town of 5,000 people tucked into the northwest corner of the state. This was destined to become the most famous of the seven debates. The weather was in stark contrast to that in Ottawa, with a cold rain falling. Despite the adverse conditions, 15,000 people, three times the population of the town, stood shoulder to shoulder as the two squared off.

Many had thought that Lincoln had been too defensive in the Ottawa debate, and he responded by taking the offensive quickly. He first answered a series of seven questions posed to him at the end of the first debate, then presented four of his own for Douglas, the second of which. backed Douglas into a corner. The question left Douglas with no way to answer without offending someone. "Could the people of a territory exclude slavery if, as Douglas had said several times, the Dred Scott decision was valid?" Lincoln asked. Aware of Douglas's well-known belief in popular sovereignty, Lincoln knew that his opponent would want to answer in the affirmative. However, the Dred Scott decision, which disallowed Congressional power to exclude slavery from a territory, dictated a negative answer. Douglas fell into the trap, answering that a territory could, indeed, keep slavery out by what he referred to as "unfriendly legislation", no matter what the Dred Scott decision said.

Southerners were irate, and began referring to Douglas's statement as the Freeport Doctrine. It would ultimately prove to be Douglas's undoing.

On September 15 the third debate took place at the Union County Fairgrounds in heavily Democratic Jonesboro. The day was sweltering and the crowd numbered only 1,400, the smallest crowd to hear any of the debates. Douglas preached that “this government was made . . . by white men, for the benefit of white men . . . , and should be administered by white men and none other.” Douglas also denounced Lincoln’s House Divided Speech. and charged that Lincoln stood for racial equality, that he believed that blacks were no different than whites.

Lincoln responded by quoting several Democratic resolutions urging exclusion of slavery in the territories, a position which Lincoln had been espousing. Overall, the partisan crowd obviously favored Douglas, a fact that disturbed Lincoln. It appeared that no minds were swayed by anything either man said.

Three days later the opponents moved to Charleston, where 12,000 people assembled at the county fairgrounds to listen to the two whom the press were now referring to as the Little Giant and the Tall Sucker. Lincoln’s procession contained a float carrying 32 young women, each representing a different state in the Union.

In response to Douglas’s charges in Jonesboro, Lincoln opened his speech with this oft-quoted position: “I will say then that I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and politicial equality of the black and white races – that I am not nor have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favorof having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

The debates continued around the state: 20,000 spectators sat through a biting wind that ripped banners and flags to tatters Knox College’s Old Main in Galesburg on October 7. Another heavily Republican area, pro-Lincoln signs were visible throughout the crowd.

Douglas repeated his position that Lincoln stood for abolition in the northern part of the state but white supremacy in the southern portion, while Douglas himself stood for white supremacy and local control of the Negro population.

Lincoln again said that he believed Negroes had rights under the Declaration of Independence. He also attacked Douglas’s acceptance of the Dred Scott decision and denounced several comments made by Douglas concerning some anti-slavery resolutions, even insinuating fraud. Douglas had already admitted his error, but Lincoln would not allow him to disavow himself that easily. Generally, there was nothing new brought out at this debate, however.

Another 12,000 turned out in Quincy six days later, where Douglas would rail, "Let each State mind its own business and let its neighbors alone! If we stand by the principle, then Mr. Lincoln will find that this republic can exist forever divided into free and slave States!"

Lincoln hammered at the theme that slavery was morally wrong, and that Republicans would attack it within the territories only, as allowed by the Constitution. Douglas again attacked the House Divided Speech., as he did at nearly every stop, saying it was recommending a war upon slavery. To Lincoln’s delight, he reiterated his Freeport Doctrine. Douglas summarized by saying that the people of the slave states were “ . . . accountable to God and their posterity and not to us.” He went on to say “ . . . this republic can exist forever divided into free and slave states, as our fathers made it.”

Lincoln immediately seized on this statement, charging that Douglas was saying that slavery should last forever.

The Quincy debate is perhaps most notable for the fact that it turned personal for the first time in the series of debates. At several points in the debates Douglas tried to equate Lincoln's antislavery position to one espousing racial equality, an unpopular notion on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Lincoln quickly countered in his down home manner, saying that Douglas was like the man who wanted to make a horse chestnut into a chestnut horse.

On a cloudy October 15 in Alton, some 25 miles north of St. Louis, 6,000 spectators listened for three hours to the seventh and final debate between the two. Douglas insisted that the Declaration of Independence did not include Negroes in the famous clause which said all men are created equal. Lincoln, although not necessarily believing that blacks were the equals of whites, rebutted that Douglas’s position exhibited a strong “tendency to dehumanize the Negro – to take away from him the right of ever striving to be a man.”

Their words were intended for the people of Illinois, but they reached the rest of the nation. The debates had gone well for Lincoln, but Douglas had his own supporters and the election went his way.

A disappointed Lincoln accepted his defeat philosophically and with typical wry humor. "I feel like the boy who stubbed his toe," he said. "It hurts too much to laugh and I'm too big to cry."

For the most part, Douglas did not make Lincoln appear to be a radical on slavery, as he had hoped. He was able to get Lincoln to spell out his views, however, and many viewed Douglas as the overall winner of the debates.

As it turned out, however, Lincoln eventually became the real winner. Douglas's Freeport Doctrine, reluctantly spelled out after Lincoln had masterfully trapped him with the trick question, made him so many political enemies that he was denied a presidential nomination in 1860. Lincoln, however, had made a lasting impression. Newspapers across the country began endorsing him as the man to head the Republican ticket. Political leaders began falling into line, and despite Lincoln's contention that "Nobody, scarcely, outside of Illinois knows me," he was selected as the nominee.

On November 6, 1860, Lincoln was elected to the office of President of the United States, the sixteenth man to hold that lofty office. Had it not been for the exposure he received as a result of the debates with Douglas, he may have remained a small town lawyer, and history would not have been the same.