Presidential Debates: Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Legal Article

Presidential Debates: Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Lincoln-Douglas debates, were a series of seven debates between the Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas and Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln during the 1858 Illinois senatorial campaign, largely concerning the issue of slavery extension into the territories.

Lincoln-Douglas debates
Lincoln-Douglas debates Abraham Lincoln (left) and U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas in debate, 1858.Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The slavery extension question had seemingly been settled by the Missouri Compromise nearly 40 years earlier. The Mexican War, however, had added new territories, and the issue flared up again in the 1840s. The Compromise of 1850 provided a temporary respite from sectional strife, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—a measure Douglas sponsored—brought the slavery extension issue to the fore once again. Douglas’s bill in effect repealed the Missouri Compromise by lifting the ban against slavery in territories north of the 36°30′ latitude. In place of the ban, Douglas offered popular sovereignty, the doctrine that the actual settlers in the territories and not Congress should decide the fate of slavery in their midst.

Douglas, Stephen A.
Douglas, Stephen A.Stephen A. Douglas.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

What Was the Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act spurred the creation of the Republican Party, formed largely to keep slavery out of the western territories. Both Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty and the Republican stand on free soil were seemingly invalidated by the Dred Scott decision of 1857, in which the Supreme Court said that neither Congress nor the territorial legislature could exclude slavery from a territory.

When the debate went to slavery, Lincoln and Douglas were addressing the problem that was dividing the nation into two hostile camps. Furthermore, this issue was threatening the continued existence of the Union. Their contest, as a consequence, had repercussions far beyond determining who would win the senatorial seat at stake.

When Lincoln received the Republican nomination to run against Douglas, he said in his acceptance speech that “A house divided against itself cannot stand” and that “this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” Douglas thereupon attacked Lincoln as a radical. This threatened the continued stability of the Union. Lincoln then challenged Douglas to a series of debates, and the two eventually agreed to hold joint encounters in seven Illinois congressional districts.

Abraham Lincoln, from a photograph made at Beardstown, Illinois, during the 1858 debates.
Abraham Lincoln, from a photograph made at Beardstown, Illinois, during the 1858 debates.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The debates, each three hours long, were convened in Ottawa (August 21), Freeport (August 27), Jonesboro (September 15), Charleston (September 18), Galesburg (October 7), Quincy (October 13), and Alton (October 15). Douglas repeatedly tried to brand Lincoln as a dangerous radical who advocated racial equality and disruption of the Union. Lincoln emphasized the moral iniquity of slavery and attacked popular sovereignty for the bloody results it had produced in Kansas.

Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln
Life-size bronze statues of Stephen A. Douglas (left) and Abraham Lincoln at the site of their 1858 debate in Alton, Illinois.© Melinda Leonard

Douglas’s Position

At Freeport Lincoln challenged Douglas to reconcile popular sovereignty with the Dred Scott decision. Douglas replied that settlers could circumvent the decision by not establishing the local police regulations—i.e., a slave code—that protected a master’s property. Without such protection, no one would bring slaves into a territory. This became known as the “Freeport Doctrine.”

Douglas’s position, while acceptable to many Northern Democrats, angered the South. This led to the division of the last remaining national political institution, the Democratic Party. He retained his seat in the Senate, narrowly defeating Lincoln when the state legislature (which then elected U.S. senators) voted 54 to 46 in his favor. However, Douglas’s stature as a national leader of the Democratic Party was gravely diminished. Lincoln, on the other hand, lost the election but won acclaim as an eloquent spokesman for the Republican cause.

In 1860, the U.S. government put the Lincoln-Douglas debates into a book. These documents were important campaign documents in the presidential contest that year. These once again pitted Republican Lincoln against Democrat Douglas. This time, however, Douglas was running as the candidate of a divided party. In this section, he finished a distant second in the popular vote to the triumphant Lincoln.

As first published