In1858, one of the most important political debates shaped thelandscape of American politics. Commonly known as the Lincoln-Douglasdebates, these talks brought the issue of slavery into the public eyeand launched Abraham Lincoln’s political career. Both StephenDouglas and Abraham Lincoln were fighting for the Illinois senatorialseat. Stephen Douglas wanted to retain his seat for a third term,while Lincoln wished to take over. For three months, August,September, and October, the two men traversed seven Illinoisdistricts and held debates that gained nationwide attention (Davisand Wilson 5). In the debates, either Lincoln or Douglas would openthe discussion with a one hour speech, and then the opponent would begiven one and a half hours to speak. Additionally, every speaker wasallocated thirty minutes to rebut the opponent’s points. Becausethe Lincoln-Douglas debates shaped America’s political scene in the1800’s, they are important sources of historical information.
Themain focuses in the open deliberation were racial strains that arosefrom the Dred-Scott choice, Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the notion ofwell known sovereignty. The Dred-Scott ruling arrived at by theSupreme Court was controversial as it declared that slaves were notAmerican citizens since they were possessions. The Kansas-NebraskaAct permitted individuals in Kansas and Nebraska to choose whether ornot they will permit subjugation. This Act was meant to cancel theMissouri bargain, which had disallowed servitude in the north since1820.
Atthe time, slave ownership was a sensitive matter to the people andthat was one of the main reasons why the debates had such a largeturnout – roughly 12000 individuals turned up for the firstdeliberation in Ottawa held on 21stAugust 1858 (McNamara). The level-headed discussions comprised ofDouglas blaming Lincoln for being an abolitionist, while Lincolnpointed the finger at Douglas for being determined to communalizesubjugation. These fundamental subjects reflected real issues thatthe nation faced at a national level with both opponents standing forwhat they believed would push the nation forward.
Thecivil arguments were pitched not only in Illinois but also indifferent states all through the U.S. as news papers from all overthe country sent columnists to cover the discussions. Unfortunately,the news articles would have factional alters profiting thepoliticians each paper bolstered. In those days, most media houseswere politically biased and linked to certain parties, therefore, thenews was not impartial or fair. Regardless of this unusualphenomenon, the two politicians went on and made convincingarguments.
AbrahamLincoln laid the groundwork for the slavery debate when he openlysaid that the nation could not progress by setting standards fordifferent races. This talk is also known as the House Divided speech,which he gave on the 17thof June in 1858 at Springfield. Lincoln compared the United States toa house that was divided on the slavery issue. Lincoln rebuttedDouglas’s popular sovereignty ideas by stating that they would onlyundermine national progress as a result of increased slavery (Lincoln6). According to Lincoln, slavery was counterproductive. Douglas, onthe other hand, was a states man and he believed in the idea of selfgovernance. The fact that the Kansas-Nebraska act gave power to thepeople of those states to decide whether or not they wanted to beslave owners made Douglas a determined individual. Stephen Douglaswas determined to make slavery an issue that undermines state powerand gives authority to the central government.
Hisopponent, Lincoln avoided the debate on power struggles andhighlighted slavery as a social and civil issue that demandedeverybody’s attention. To bolster this argument, Abraham insistedon the foundations that made America an independent country. TheDeclaration of Independence states that every individual is createdequal. Lincoln argued that slavery undermined this very principal asit gave man the right to own another – the slave owner wasconsidered more superior (Lincoln 17). Although Abraham never openlystated that other races were equal to the white man, he argued thatthey deserve legal protection from maltreatment.
Douglas was appalled by Lincoln’s remarks and approach. He fearedthat Lincoln’s remarks may lead to a civil war as different stateswere divided on the slavery issue – some advocated for it, whileothers were against it. According to Douglas, it was wrong forLincoln to raise the issue in public because such remarks couldeasily arouse the emotions of the citizens and give rise to aconflict. After going at each other from different locations, the menfinally agreed to a one on one debate that would settle the slaverymatter and issues at hand – there were seven meetings in total.
Moreand more states were joining the US and the question of whether ornot they should adopt the practice of slavery took center stageduring the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates held at Illinois in 1858.The first debate happened on August 21stinOttawa district (McNamara). Stephen Douglas bombarded Abraham with anumber of questions on race and white superiority. The only wayLincoln could rescue himself from the reputation ruining allegationsand questions was to openly admit that other ethnic communities werenot equal to the whites. Abraham gained momentum and seven dayslater, during the second debate, he was more composed and direct withhis questions to Douglas. It is here where he asked the FreeportQuestion that was directed at young states joining the union –Lincoln queried if it was possible for individuals to do way withslavery before they formed a state government. Douglas replied to thequestion by admitting that it was possible for people to abolishslavery by making laws contrary to the Dred-Scott judgment sinceterritories had the right to make their own decisions (The).This idea is sometimes called the Freeport Doctrine. By replying tothis question, Douglas stirred a lot of controversy as people nowquestioned his belief in white superiority. The Freeport Question wasa smart move by Lincoln as he used Douglas’s arguments against him.Stephen stood for self-state governance and indirectly opposed theend of slavery saying that it was a ploy by the federal government tocontrol the different territories through uniform laws. It wasindirect because Douglas argued states did not have to abolishslavery if they did not want to. Such a response meant that Stephendid not offend anyone – both slavery supporters and non-supporters.However, when Douglas formulated the Freeport Doctrine, it looked asif he was discrediting one group (slavery supporters) and his supportfrom the public swayed.
Thethird debate, which happened on September 15 at Jonesboro, was not asheated as the first or the second deliberation because Douglas wastrying to defend himself and regain the trust of his supporters(McNamara). It only had an audience of around 1500 people. Douglastried to make Lincoln the enemy by continuously attacking him andsaying that his idea of ending slavery was a ploy to disunite thepeople and stir up war. As a wise debater, Lincoln avoided Douglas’squestions because he knew they were meant to stir up emotions andkeep him off balance just like the first debate had done. Lincoln didnot get angry nor show any signs of defeat, he focused on Douglas’sFreeport Doctrine to get his opponent off guard. Douglas spent thebetter part of the debate defending himself and pointing fingers athis political rivals for gross mischief.
Usinghis political influence and wits, Stephen Douglas accused Lincoln ofsupporting black equality and shifted the focus of the debate toLincoln’s suggestions. This idea sparked outrage from the publicand set the pace for the fourth debate held on 18thSeptember at Charleston (McNamara). Abraham Lincoln defended himselfby saying that his call to end slavery was not a plea to give blackpeople political rights and freedoms. Lincoln insisted thatprotection under the law did not mean blacks would be allowed tomarry whites. This open deliberation was memorable as it was one ofthe few moments where Lincoln used humor in public. He told aprogression of clumsy quips relating to race to show that hisperspectives were not the radical stances attributed to him by hisopponent.
Followingthe heated exchange between Lincoln and Douglas in the fourth debate,the crowd looked forward to the fifth deliberation – more thanfifteen thousand attended the event. Held on 7thOctober in Galesburg, the fifth debate was a war of words focused onthe Declaration of Independence (McNamara). Having attacked Lincoln’sidea of race equality, Douglas turned to the Declaration ofIndependence which Abraham often referred to as the instrument ofabsolute fairness. In referring to this important document, Stephenstated that the equality clause only represented white individuals.To stress his point further, Douglas told the audience that thefounding fathers owned slaves when they assented to the Declarationof Independence. If the document was indeed meant to preach equality,then the founding fathers would not have owned slaves when theyagreed to be bound by the document. Since they were both learned menand students of the law, they used it to their advantage. Lincolnsimply stated that the constitution did not openly advocate for slaveownership. Nowhere has it been written that one race has totaldominance over the other. Abraham insisted Douglas’s arguments werewrong because they turned slavery into a legal action. It was adebate without any outright winner as both men stuck with theirarguments without budging.
Equalitywas still a hot topic in the sixth debate held at Quincy in October13 (McNamara). Lincoln never swayed from his initial idea ofprotection under the law. The law sets the tone for how people livein a free and fair society. Abraham opened the debate by stating thatalthough a black individual may not be equal to a white man, they arestill protected by the constitution. Black people deserved to livefree and do as they please within the confines of the law. Slaverywas unconstitutional and wrong. His opponent, Stephen Douglas,accused Lincoln of playing both sides and sitting on the fence.According to Douglas, Lincoln would claim that a black individual wasnot his equal to gain the support of slavery supporters, and the sametime insist it was wrong to deny the minority their constitutionalrights as a tactic to be on the good side of abolitionists. Thispresumed uncertainty in communication was a good reason not to trustLincoln’s arguments.
Althoughaudiences were captivated by the zeal of the two men during thedebates, they grew tired of the equality topic and around fivethousand people attended the final talk (McNamara). The seventh andfinal debate happened two days later at Alton. Both men put forththeir strongest final arguments in a bid to woo the voters and tipthe elections in their favor. Douglas openly criticized his FreeportDoctrine saying it would bring more harm than good. America could notbe united if some states gave slaves total freedom and others didnot. However, Stephen never openly said that states should have auniform law allowing slavery. Douglas was just reaffirming hisinitial statements on the dangers of abolishing slavery politically.Similarly, Abraham remained resilient and pushed for the recognitionof everyone’s rights regardless of their skin color. As an issuethat directly affected the American society, Lincoln reasoned withhis audience and asked them to carefully think about the problem.Slavery went against the constitution and morals which united theAmerican people (Burt 11).
Whenthe election results were announced in November that same year,Douglas won and retained his Illinois senatorial position. However,Lincoln won the popular ballot by over four thousand votes, but lostthe elections because he had less legislature votes. It was nosurprise that he lost the legislature vote since most of the lawmakers were democrats from Douglas’s party. Regardless of theoutcome, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were instrumental in endingslavery and giving minority communities their freedom. After thedebates, Lincoln became a national figure because of his passionateviews on the illegality of slavery. His popularity made him presidenttwo years later. Lincoln used his influence as president to pass abill that made slavery illegal – the thirteenth amendment. Americais the considered the land of the free and it is this reputation thatmakes it stand out from other countries in the world. Without theLincoln-Douglas debates, America would never have become the greatcountry it is right now – a land of freedom, abundance, andopportunity.
Insum, the Lincoln-Douglas debates are important from a historicalperspective because they shaped American politics in the 19thcentury. When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas agreed to debate onimportant issues at the time, nobody thought it would become sointense as to gain nationwide attention. Although the two men werefighting for the Illinois senatorial seat, the debates made it looklike a presidential campaign. The debates attracted huge crowds andreporters from different states. The men went at each other likegladiators in a battle field. Lincoln wanted slavery abolishedbecause he believed it was unconstitutional, while Douglas wasagainst the idea as he said it would lead to total anarchy amongstates. In the end, Lincoln lost the battle and senatorial election,but won the war when he later became president and abolished slavery.
Burt,John. Lincoln`sTragic Pragmatism.Harvard University Press, 2013.
Davis,Rodney and Douglas L. Wilson, eds. The: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition (The KnoxCollege Lincoln Studies Center).University of Illinois Press, 2014.
Lincoln,Abraham. TheWritings of Abraham Lincoln – Volume 3 – The Lincoln-DouglasDebates.CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
McNamara,Robert. “The of 1858.” ThoughtCo,12 Oct. 2015,www.thoughtco.com/the-lincoln-douglas-debates-of-1858-1773590.
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