Lincoln-Douglas Senatorial Debates 1858

April 14, 2011


Vesalius College – Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Introduction to Human Communication CMM101

Professor Bernard

26 November 2009


In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, and the incumbent Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat, participated into seven debates for an Illinois seat in the United States Senate.  Because the issues debated were national as well as local, involving the expansion of slavery into the territories and the rights of slaves in the country, the seven debates attracted nationwide attention far more than any other state-level contest ever had. The debates brought up two contradictory views of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence from the two contestants: all men are created equal”, in their possession of intrinsic natural rights, applied to all human beings in Lincoln’s position versus only applied to whites in Douglas’ belief. In other words, Douglas advocated the values of majority rule with no limit while Lincoln defended minority rights by referring “popular sovereignty” to a problem of morality due to the supposed right of the majority to do wrong. The debates were scheduled for Ottawa, August 21; Freeport, August 27; Jonesboro, September 15; Charleston, September 18; Galesburg, October 7; Quincy, October 13; and Alton, October 15 (“Abraham Lincoln”). In this short research paper, I will first provide personal background of the contestants and historical context of the senatorial debates of 1858, then analyze the first and second debates in terms of their content and dynamics, and finally give my opinions about them.

What is the Illinois background of the contestants? Lincoln and Douglas had a long acquaintance since the early 1830s; and their relationship could be thought of significant others. Lincoln, who was morally opposed to slavery, was a Kentucky and Hoosier Whig and later Republican while Douglas, who was indifferent to slavery, was a Vermont Yankee Jacksonian Democrat. Illinois, which was long an overwhelmingly Jacksonian state, forced Lincoln as a Whig to take a hard political road while it provided Douglas with the easier road immediately in Illinois politics. While Lincoln’s career in politics had reached the limit possible for a Whig in Illinois by the end of his congressional term in 1849, Douglas constantly moved up politically through administrative positions and the Illinois legislative and judicial branches to multiple terms in the federal House of Representatives and Senate. As a result, Lincoln returned to Illinois in the late 1840s to concentrate on his legal career whereas Douglas was thought to be the greatest man in the Illinois and even had been seriously considered presidential timber by the Democrats at their national convention in Cincinnati in 1856 (Davis et al. xi).

The immediate context of the debates could be traced back to its prehistory of at least at least four years when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was enacted in 1854 by Douglas. As a strong nationalist who believed strongly in the occupation of the American West by self-governing people of European ancestry, Douglas wanted to construct and expand transcontinental railroads. However, there were two problems involved: the vast wilderness to the west of Iowa and Missouri must be brought into the Union before a railroad to California could be built; and Southerners didn’t want a single large state to be free. As a result, Douglas created two new territories, Nebraska and Kansas, and proposed the principle of “popular sovereignty,” under which the residents of the new territories would vote on whether slavery would be legal in the territories. Because the Kansas-Nebraska Act contradicted the Missouri Compromise 1820, which enforced new states to the north of the southern border of Missouri to be “free states,” and those to the south of the line to be “slave states”, it implied serious threat that slavery could expand widespread (McNamara). As a result, the Whig party was reconfigured and eventually replaced by the sectional and antislavery Republican Party with the unity of the Democratic Party being threatened; the slavery issue was worsen and resulted in Civil War. It was the Kansas-Nebraska Act that brought Lincoln’s anti-slavery sentiment into sharp focus and brought him back to politics as a member of the new Republican Party in 1856 to participate into the senatorial debates of 1858 (Davis et al. p.xii). He began his campaign with his famous “House Divided” speech at the Capitol in Springfield in June 1858. In his speech, Lincoln argued in his House Divided Speech that Douglas was part of a conspiracy to nationalize slavery and argued that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (“The Lincoln-Douglas Debates).

Another important event in the background of the Illinois senatorial campaign of 1858 was Douglas’s break with the administration of Democratic President James Buchanan over the Lecompton Constitution. The convention that drew up the Lecompton Constitution represented an electoral and demographic minority whereby only a minority voted. The convention only allowed two options “Constitution with Slavery” vs. “Constitution with no Slavery” whereby the latter simply meant that future importation of slaves into Kansas would be banned (“The Lecompton Constitution”). Thus, the Lecompton Constitution was an instrument prepared by a minority faction to impose slavery on the Free-State majority in Kansas.  President Buchanan pressed for the constitution’s approval by Congress because he believed that it would end the nation’s slavery controversy while allaying the anger of Southerners. Because the convention violated “fundamental principle of free government” and “popular sovereignty”, Douglas broke ranks with the administration in 1857. As a result, Democratic President Buchanan set up a rival National Democratic Party that drew votes away from Douglas, paving the way for a Republican victory in the 1860 presidential election. Douglas’s break with the Buchanan administration also appeared to weaken the Republican unity because many of them favored Douglas’s position on the Lecompton Constitution although Douglas’s position was merely procedural for his indifference to the outcome of a territorial slavery (Davis et al. xv-xvi).

The practice of press coverage at the time was also an important factor in the background of the Illinois senatorial campaign of 1858. Because the press depended largely on political organization for survival, it took sides not only editorially but also in day-to-day coverage, aiming not only to report but also to persuade. For example, in Springfield, the Illinois State Register supported the Democrats while the Illinois State Journal backed up the new Republican Party. In Chicago, Democrats read the Chicago Daily Times; and the Republicans read the Chicago Daily Press and Tribune (Holzer 7). The newspapers sanitized the speakers to the best advantage by reproducing the speeches and rebuttals as they perceived their equally partisan readers wanted them preserved. For example, the contestants in the Ottawa debate were analyzed in sharp contrast by different press. The Democratic press reported that Douglas “electrified the crowd” while Lincoln “dodged” and looked “embarrassed”. On the contrary, the Republican journals thought Lincoln appeared “high toned” and “powerful”, and Douglas  “boorish” and “cowardly” (43). Therefore, what Lincoln and Douglas said at their seven debates in 1858 was not then always accurately reported. What was printed had never been questioned perhaps because the debates were “vastly more admired than read” or just because the readers simply remain ignorant of how the record was assembled (4-5).

The first debate was taken place in Ottawa on August 21st. Douglas was the opening speaker who occupied the introducing charges and goaded his opponent throughout the debate. Douglas charged Lincoln with conspiring to “abolitionize” the Whig and Democratic Parties: “In 1854, Mr. Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Trumbull entered into an arrangement, one with the other, and each with his respective friends, to dissolve the old Whig party on the one hand, and to dissolve the old Democratic party on the other, and to connect the members of both into an Abolition party under the name and disguise of a Republican party.” He also accused Lincoln, a member of the “Black Republican” party of being a secret supporter of radical resolutions of the Abolition platform in Springfield, which called for repeal of the fugitive slave law and the emancipation of slaves: “Now, gentlemen, your Black Republicans have cheered every one of those propositions, and yet I venture to say that you cannot get Mr. Lincoln to come out and say that he is now in favor of each one of them.” He also cited as proof Lincoln’s House Divided Speech in which Lincoln said” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half Slave and half Free.” Douglas also charged Lincoln with opposing the Dred Scott decision and wanting to make Illinois “a free Negro colony.” Douglas ended his searing attacks by posing seven questions and challenged Lincoln to answer each of them (National Park Service, “First Debate”).

When it was Lincoln’s turn to give the speech, the audience experienced a distinct change of pace. While Douglas had been bombastic and aggressive, Lincoln appeared relaxed and jovial.  During his turn, Lincoln was mainly on the defensive denying the allegations Douglas had made and did not respond to the questions. Lincoln argued that “the next Dred Scott decision” could allow slavery to spread into free states. Lincoln confirmed that he was not in Springfield when the resolutions were adopted. He also justified his position of supporting slaves’ equal right to liberty, not complete social equality: “I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” During the whole debate, Lincoln seemed to attack Douglas only once when he charged Douglas with trying to nationalize slavery: “He [Douglas], and those acting with him, have placed that institution [of slavery] on a new basis, which looks to the perpetuity and nationalization of slavery… Its [of slavery’s] advocates will push it forward until it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South” (ibid.). As a result, Lincoln’s Republican friends at home privately worried that he was far too defensive and urged him to be more aggressive at the next debates (Holzer 43).

The second debate was taken place in Freeport on August 27. Lincoln answered the seven questions Douglas posed at Ottawa to confirm his position that he did not “stand in favor of the unconditional repeal of the Fugitive Slave law” nor “pledge against the admission of any more slave States into the Union, […] the admission of a new State into the Union with such a Constitution as the people of that State may see fit to make, […] to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, […]  to the prohibition of the slave-trade between the different States”, but “pledged to a belief in the right and duty of Congress to prohibit slavery in all the United States Territories”. Then, Lincoln asked Douglas four questions. In one of the question, Lincoln tried to force Douglas to choose between the principle of popular sovereignty proposed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the United States Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, which stated that slavery could not legally be excluded from the territories: “Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?” Douglas’s response to the question then became the Freeport Doctrine. Instead of making a direct choice, Douglas stated that the people of a territory could keep slavery out even though the Supreme Court said that the federal government had no authority to exclude slavery, simply by refusing to pass a slave code and other legislation needed to protect slavery: “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 or an hour anywhere, 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 to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst. If, on the contrary, they are for it, their legislation will favor its extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a slave Territory or a free Territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska bill” (National Park Service, “Second Debate”). In taking this position of finding a compromise between pro-slavery and anti-slavery positions, Douglas alienated Southerners who preferred strict adherence to the Dred Scott decision regardless of states’ rights. Although Douglas was able to hold his Illinois followers and secure reelection to the Senate with his response, the Freeport Doctrine vastly contributed to his loss in the 1860 presidential election (“The Freeport Doctrine”).

I see that the two contestants in the second debate moved towards a better balance of attacking and defending positions. Lincoln was more on the attacking side than in the first debate as he asked four questions, putting Douglas in a difficult position while Douglas was more on the defensive side to answer the questions. However, Lincoln and Douglas’s styles in the second debate were not much different from the first debate: Lincoln was calm, relaxed, thoughtful, and penetrating while Douglas continued to be alert, aggressive, combative, arrogant, and patronizing. In both debates, there seemed to have a certain fine dignity, harmony and a convincing quality in Lincoln’s method of argument while Douglas’ arguments seemed to lack logical sequence and intuitional judgment due to having too little heart.

In conclusion, although Lincoln lost that Senate race to Douglas, the direct confrontation with Douglas, the unbeatable “Little Giant”, over important national issues during seven senatorial debates had brought Lincoln significant popularity which eventually led to Lincoln’s nomination for Presidential election of the United States in 1860. In 1860, Lincoln was elected as the President of the United States. An interesting question to historians and other scholars arise: without the 1858 debates, would Lincoln still have emerged as a national political figure? To some people, Lincoln would not because his popularity could only be earned from the senatorial debates against Douglas, the famous figure. Roy Morris Jr.’s thesis in his book The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln’s Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America, claimed that “Had it not been for Douglas, Lincoln would have remained merely a good trial lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, known locally for his droll sense of humor, bad jokes, and slightly nutty wife.” However, to others, e.g. John A. Corry, the author of The First Lincoln-Douglas Debates, October 1854, Lincoln would have emerged as a national political figure even without the 1858 debates due to his debating skills and ability to hold his own against stiff competition (Sampson). Although the debates took place more than a century ago, they still engaged a key question in American political life: What is democracy’s purpose? Is it to satisfy the desires of the majority? Or is it to achieve a just and moral public order?


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