This year marks the 160th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates about slavery in the territories. By the year 1858 the abolitionist movement had reached fever pitch. The abolitionists had suffered defeats throughout the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, continually experiencing frustration in all three branches of the federal government:
The presidency, where the holders of the office were either:
• Pro-slave, i.e., Jackson, Tyler, Polk, Taylor; or
• Ineffectual, i.e., Fillmore, Buchanan; or
• A northerner who none-the-less opposed the abolitionists (Pierce).
Congress, in the hands of the southerners in the Senate and the House, where even the slightest criticism of slavery was met with:
• Clever parliamentary maneuvering on the part of Congressmen such as John Calhoun;
• Vituperation on the part of many southern Congressmen; and even
• Physical violence, e.g., the brutal caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston Brooks and two cohorts.
And the Supreme Court, the members of which continually emphasized the sovereignty of states’ rights (especially with respect to slavery). The Court also adhered to a strict original reading of the constitution. The decisions of the Court frustrated and disheartened the abolitionists more and more as time went on, especially in the 1847 Dred Scott case. In that decision, the Taney Court ruled that a negro could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court. The court further ruled that the federal government lacked the power to regulate slavery in the federal territories. As a result, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850 were also ruled unconstitutional or ineffective.
So, by 1858 the abolitionists were looking for new leaders. The nascent Republican Party, formed only four years earlier, began to attract more interest.
Lincoln had gradually achieved more name recognition in Illinois (he had served a term as a Congressman, ran a profitable law practice, and was active in helping form the Republican Party). Still, his decision to run against the incumbent Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate seemed a long shot. Douglas, the “Little Giant,” was one of the most prominent members of the senate and was considered a viable candidate for the presidency.
The ground rules are a crucial part of any debate. Lincoln and Douglas agreed that one would speak for an hour, the other participant would speak for one and one-half hour, and then the first speaker would have one-half hour to respond. One can only imagine modern-day audiences, with a limited attention span, enduring a speech that long.
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As described in the excellent book, The Lincoln Debates of 1858, the debates had an atmosphere somewhat akin to a modern-day rock concert. People came from miles away to watch, many from out of state. Reporters for major newspapers got transcripts of the debate, first on shorthand, then telegraphed to newspapers all over the U.S.
Douglas was an advocate for popular sovereignty to decide whether slavery would be expanded. Voters in a territory could decide whether to be admitted as a free state or a slave state. Lincoln felt that slavery itself was immoral, and that anybody advocating popular sovereignty was in effect condoning slavery.
The first few debates did not go particularly well for Lincoln. Douglas managed to put him on the defensive at Ottawa and also during the Freeport debate. The Jonesboro debate was in an area of Illinois where the residents were much more sympathetic to slavery, and Lincoln’s message did not resonate as well there. But it is generally considered that Lincoln won the Charleston debate. The debate at Galesburg was mostly in front of a group of abolitionists, where he prevailed. The last two debates were considered victories for Lincoln as well.
The debates did not win the senate seat for Lincoln. But they gave him national prominence and enabled him to ultimately win the nomination of the Republican Party in 1860. Douglas went on to win the nomination of the Democrat party. However, the Democrats in effect split into three parties that year, and Lincoln won the presidency.
The resulting Civil War, and eventual abolition of slavery stemmed in part from the debates. The debates elevated Lincoln to the presidency. The south, convinced that he would try to end slavery, began to leave the union soon after he was elected.
• Gary Maydew is a retired Business Professor at Iowa State University. He has a Ph.D. in accountancy from The University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, but has always enjoyed history as well.