The Lincoln Douglas debates

As the 1858 Senate contest between Douglas and Lincoln progressed, it quickly drew the attention of people all around Illinois and the nation. This spotlight fell on the two men for several reasons. Both men were energetic campaigners who roamed all across the state to win people to their side. Moreover, most observers agreed that the race was a close one, and that either man might win. But the Douglas-Lincoln contest became most famous because it included a series of heated public debates that caught the imagination of people all across America. Each one of the seven face-to-face debates was held in a different Illinois town, but all of them focused almost entirely on the issue of slavery. "Until then candidates for northern office had usually avoided discussing slavery," wrote Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, author of Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. "During the Lincoln-Douglas contest, it was the issue. No one talked much about anything else."

As the campaign progressed, Douglas repeatedly defended his belief in the concept of popular sovereignty, even though many people thought that the Supreme Court's ruling in the 1857 Dred Scott decision meant that no legal steps could be taken to halt the spread of slavery. In a debate in Freeport, Illinois, the senator ex-

ms Stephen Douglas, "The Itf1^ Little Giant"

Stephen Arnold Douglas was one of the most notable American statesmen of the nineteenth century. Born in Brandon, Vermont, he became a powerful legislator in Illinois in the early 1840s. Douglas was small in size, but he was armed with a sharp mind, great ambition, and a heartfelt belief that squabbles over slavery could not be allowed to stand in the way of America's westward expansion. First as a Democratic congressman (1843-47), and then as a U.S. senator (1847-61), Douglas insisted that each state should be able to decide whether to allow slavery for itself, without interference from the federal government or other states.

During the 1850s, Douglas became one of America's leading defenders of this concept, known as popular sovereignty (sometimes also called squatter sovereignty). In fact, he incorporated its basic framework into the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, both of which were intended to ease the growing tensions between the North and the South. But despite Douglas's best efforts, neither of these compromise measures lasted for very long.

Douglas is also famous for his 1858 debates with Abraham Lincoln, who challenged him for his Illinois Senate seat. Douglas barely managed to escape with a victory, but their fierce verbal battles over the

Senator Stephen Douglas
Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

issue of slavery vaulted Lincoln into national prominence. In 1860, Douglas and two other candidates were defeated by Lincoln in the U.S. presidential election. But when the Civil War began, Douglas issued a strongly worded statement of support for Lincoln and the Union. "There can be no neutrals in this war, only patriots—or traitors," he declared. Douglas then launched a speaking tour in the western states to generate support for Lincoln's efforts to restore the Union. But in June 1861, he died quite suddenly, possibly from cirrhosis of the liver.

plained that American territories that did not want to have slavery could simply refuse to pass any laws that were required for slavery to exist. Lincoln ridiculed this argument, which came to be known as the Freeport Doctrine, and emphasized his own belief that the continued practice of slavery in the United States ignored American ideals of liberty and freedom. He also charged that if men like Douglas continued to lead the country, slavery would spread all across the American West and North.

Douglas, though, continued to claim that individual states' rights should be considered above all other factors. "[Lincoln] says that he looks forward to a time when slavery shall be abolished everywhere," Douglas said in one debate. "I look forward to a time when each state shall be allowed to do as it pleases. . . . I care more for the great principle of self-government, the right of the people to rule, than I do for all the Negros in Christendom." Douglas also appealed to the racist feelings that dominated many white Illinois communities. He repeatedly accused Lincoln of being a dangerous extremist who thought that blacks were just as good as whites, and many of Douglas's speeches capitalized on common white fears that freed black men might take their jobs and women. Lincoln sometimes responded to these remarks with statements that made it clear that he was not supporting total equality between the races. "I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races," Lincoln stated in one de bate. "I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white people." Despite these beliefs, however, Lincoln never wavered from his conviction that all black people deserved release from enslavement.

Both Lincoln and Douglas sometimes resorted to name-calling and misleading statements in their campaigns. But the Lincoln-Douglas debates ultimately revealed two men who were both concerned about the preservation of the Union. They just had different beliefs about the course that should be taken to keep the North and the South together. Douglas sincerely believed that the Union could be preserved only if the federal government let each state decide how to handle slavery by itself. Lincoln, on the other hand, was equally convinced that slavery was poisoning the country and that it had to be stopped and eventually wiped out.

In the end, Douglas barely defeated Lincoln to retain his Senate seat. But their contest—and especially their debates, which riveted the nation—would have a lasting impact on their political fortunes. Douglas, for example, had been a long-time ally of the South because of his support for states' rights. But his opposition to the Lecompton Constitution (proslavery leaders' attempt to add Kansas to the Union as a slave state) and his support for the so-called Freeport Doctrine dramatically reduced his popularity in the slaveholding states in the late

1850s. This change would come back to haunt him during the 1860 elections, when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Lincoln's performance during the 1858 campaign, meanwhile, had transformed him into one of the rising stars in the Republican Party. Even though he lost to Douglas, his campaign vaulted him onto the national political scene. As the months passed by, he began to be mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for the upcoming 1860 presidential elections.

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