The Lincoln Douglas Debates

        Lincoln was no genius but a familiar and effective politician.  Personally known to the common people as railsplitter, flatboatman, storekeeper, country postmaster, surveyor, and captain in the Black Hawk War, he had come up through the ranks as a self-made politician,  had served four terms in the state legislature and one in the Congress, and , as practicing lawyer, had traveled from county-seat to county-seat, mingling with the people on court days, amusing them with homespun stories and thrilling them with political speeches from the stump.  Nor had he moved merely among the common people.  He had married into one of the proud slaveholding families of the Kentucky aristocracy; he had risen to top of the legal profession in his state; and from having been one of the most prominent Whigs of Illinois he had not taken his place as an outstanding Republican leader.  With his homely, rugged face, his backwoods origin, his tall, awkward form, his reputation for honesty, his mental tenacity, his familiarity with the politician's craft, his innate conservatism shrewdly combined with crusading zeal, his Jeffersonian philosophy, his power of invective, and his mastery of terse, epigrammatic English, he stood out in 1858, not only as a formidable opponent of Douglas but as a vigorous spokesman of a new party that was profiting by the disruptive forces abroad in the land and gaining votes every day.   After several years of slight political activity, he had returned to politics with redoubled earnestness in indignation at the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854; he had become increasingly prominent by his denunciation of Douglas's popular sovereignty; in 1856 the Republicans in national convention at Philadelphia had given him 110 votes for the vice-presidential nomination; and he now gained advantage and prestige by challenging the well-known Douglas to a series of joint debates at the time when Douglas was suffering by the party split between his won followers and the powerfully buttressed Buchanan faction.  In truth Lincoln had been publicly debating Douglas for years; but there was something in this formal series of forensic encounters which seized the imagination of the country.
        Opening at Ottawa on August 21, the joint debates continued with the fanfare of western campaigning at Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, and Quincy, closing at Alton on October 15. Douglas taunted Lincoln with his seemingly radical "house divided" declaration, accused him of promoting a war of sections, ridiculed the idea of state uniformity as to domestic institutions, hurled sneers at "black Republicans" whom he accused of demanding racial equality, expounded his own doctrine of letting the people decide the slavery question, and scored Lincoln and his followers for seeking to abolitionize the country and for defying the Supreme Court. Bitterly did he denounce the alliance which he declared to exist between the Republicans and the Buchanan Democrats for the purpose of defeating him with the aid of Federal patronage in order to satisfy Democratic revenge for his "having defeated" the Lecompton constitution. "What do you Republicans think," he said, "of a political organization that will try to make an unholy . . . combination with its professed foes to beat a man merely because he has done right?.... You know that the axe of decapitation is suspended over every man in office in Illinois, and the terror of proscription is threatened every Democrat by the present administration unless he supports the Republican ticket in preference to my Democratic associates and myself."
        On Lincoln's side the debate revealed that combination of conservatism with moral indignation and reforming zeal which has been mentioned as one of his peculiar characteristics. No Garrisonian abolitionist, Lincoln shared some of the Southern attitudes toward the Negro. Though he denounced the Dred Scott decision for its doctrine that a Negro could not be a citizen, he said very frankly: ". . . I am not in favor of negro citizenship." Similarly, he emphatically disclaimed the doctrine of social equality for the races; declined to advocate the repeal of the fugitive slave law; took no stand against the admission of further slave states; and qualified his "house divided" declaration by explaining that it contained no threat of radical violence or sectional strife. At the same time the passionate sincerity of his hostility to slavery gleamed through his rhetoric. "The difference between the Republican and the Democratic parties . . . [in] this contest," he declared, "is, that the former consider slavery a moral, social and political wrong, while the latter do not consider it either a moral, social or political wrong. . . . The Republican party . . . hold that this government was instituted to secure the blessings of freedom, and that slavery is an unqualified evil to the negro, to the white man, to the soil, and to the State. Regarding it an evil, they will not molest it in the States where it exists . . . ; but they will use every constitutional method to prevent the evil from becoming larger. . . They will, if possible, place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate peaceable extinction, in Gods own good time."
        Though the speeches on both sides were long and elaborate, they were largely taken up with repetition, or with half serious, half playful banter. While Lincoln dwelt at length on the moral wrong of slavery, his constructive proposals can be briefly summarized. Advocating no Federal interference with the institution in the states, he insisted that it be excluded from the territories (this being his most important proposal); in a qualified manner he favored exclusion from the District of Columbia; he held that the Dred Scott decision, in denying to Congress the power to exclude slavery from the territories, was erroneous; and, while avoiding any attitude of radical defiance toward the Court, he declared his expectation that the decision would be reversed. With all his moderation and tolerance, however, Lincoln managed to inject enough fire and righteous denunciation into his speeches to inspire radicals; meanwhile his abolitionist partner, Herndon, kept in close and sympathetic touch with the antislavery Wing.
        Lincoln's shrewdness in proposing a set question to Douglas at Freeport, and Douglas's manner of answering it, were destined to have important consequences. "Can the people of a United States Territory," asked Lincoln, "in any lawful way . . . exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?" If Douglas should follow the cue of the Supreme Court and answer No, he would disappoint many voters in his own state and in the North generally; should he answer Yes, he would offend his pro-Southern supporters in "Egypt" (Southern Illinois) and would alienate the slaveholding South. The chance that Douglas would lose the presidency in 1860 by an answer that would gain the senatorship in 1858 may not have been in Lincoln's mind; he was merely pursuing his relentless purpose, everywhere evident in the debates, of exposing the inconsistency between the Dred Scott doctrine and the principle of "popular sovereignty," and of widening the split between the Douglas and Buchanan wings of the Democratic party. Douglas replied:

"I answer emphatically that in my opinion the people of a Territory can, by lawful means, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State constitution. It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day . . unless it is supported by local police regulations. Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature; and if the people are opposed to slavery, they will elect representatives w ho will by unfriendly legislation . . prevent the introduction of it into their midst, If, on the contrary, they are for it, their legislation will favor its extension."

        By this answer, or rather by Douglas's whole career in the later fifties of which this answer was but a logical part, the "Little Giant" had made himself unavailable as a leader of Southern Democracy. As to the outcome of the election in Illinois, it presented a paradox not uncommon in American politics: Lincoln's party carried districts containing a larger population than those carried by the Democrats, but because of an inequitable apportionment (made under Democratic auspices) Douglas obtained a majority in the legislature, insuring his election. Two outstanding results gave national significance to the debates: Douglas's position was so advertised and clarified as to intensify the rift in the Democratic party; and the Republicans had found a new leader, for Abraham Lincoln had achieved a national prominence which caused him soon to be mentioned for the presidency.
Source:  "The Civil War and Reconstruction" by J.G. Randall and David Herbert Donald

This Page last updated 02/16/02

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