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Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The campaign for the Illinois Senatorial seat in 1858 pitted the two-term incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas, against a lesser-known challenger, Abraham Lincoln. Douglas was the leading Democratic figure of the day, but had suffered political ups and downs. His reputation among Northern Democrats had plummeted after the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the ensuing violence there; however, he recovered his standing through a courageous attack against President Buchanan's plan to recognize a proslavery minority government in Kansas.

In 1858 Lincoln was a successful lawyer and state politician, but did not enjoy a national reputation. Douglas, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to meet his opponent in a series of debates throughout the state.

The U.S. Constitution (text), as originally drafted, provided for the election of U.S. Senators by the state legislatures (Article 1, Section 3), not by the general electorate. Therefore, Douglas and Lincoln were actually campaigning for the election of state representatives and senators, who, if elected, would then support their respective senatorial hopefuls.

Before the face-to-face debates began, both candidates had staked out their positions. On June 16, 1858, Lincoln delivered his "House Divided" speech in Springfield. He said:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.
Lincoln took aim at the decision in the Dred Scott Case, especially its stringent effort to deny any black slave or his descendent the rights of an American citizen. In Chicago on July 9, Douglas responded. He noted that by denying the possibility of a nation only partly free, he was virtually committing the nation to a civil war. He also took issue with Lincoln's unwillingness to accept the Dred Scott decision:
As a lawyer, I feel at liberty to appear before the Court and controvert any principle of law while the question is pending before the tribunal; but when the decision is made, my private opinion, your opinion, all other opinions must yield to the majesty of that authoritative adjudication.
The question of the extension of slavery into the territories acquired through the Mexican-American War dominated the seven debates. Crowds in the thousands turned out to witness the exchanges, and newspapers provided detailed coverage for people throughout the nation. The most notable exchange occurred at Freeport on August 27, 1858. There, Lincoln attempted to exploit the weakness of the Popular Sovereignty doctrine imposed by the Dred Scott decision and, in the process, put Douglas on the spot. Lincoln asked, "Can the people of a United States Territory [lawfully] . . . exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a state constitution?" Douglas had two choices:

  • if he answered in the negative he would be admitting that his pet doctrine of popular sovereignty had been trumped by the Supreme Court, and he would probably lose the support of Northern Democrats and his Senate seat
  • if he answered in the affirmative, as indeed he did, he would jeopardize his presidential ambitions by alienating Southern Democrats.

Douglas's answer, known as the Freeport Doctrine, achieved its prime objective. He satisfied Democratic politicians in Illinois and was able to defeat Lincoln for the Senate seat. For Lincoln, this was not a devastating political loss. He had emerged as a nationally recognized figure and a leading contender for the Republican nomination in 1860.

See also Constitution (narrative).