Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Among the most brilliant and famous political debates in U.S. history, the campaign debates between Illinois senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas articulated the fundamental national split over the issue of slavery and elevated Lincoln to a national stature that would carry him to the presidency two years later.

Summary of Event

Republican successes in the U.S. national elections of 1856 Presidency, U.S.;election of 1856 attested to the strength of the newly formed Republican Party Republican Party;election of 1856 . In the congressional elections of 1858, the Republicans were prepared to capitalize on such major issues as “Bleeding Kansas” and the Dred Scott decision of March, 1857, and expected to solidify their position in the U.S. Congress. Many Republicans were willing to cooperate with members of other parties who opposed the Buchanan administration, including members of the anti-Nebraska Democrats, Know-Nothings, and former Whigs. Debates;Lincoln vs. Douglas
Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Stephen A. Douglas[Douglas]
Douglas, Stephen A.
[p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln]
Illinois;Lincoln-Douglas debates[Lincoln Douglas debates]
[kw]Lincoln-Douglas Debates (June 16-Oct. 15, 1858)
[kw]Douglas Debates, Lincoln- (June 16-Oct. 15, 1858)
[kw]Debates, Lincoln-Douglas (June 16-Oct. 15, 1858)
Debates;Lincoln vs. Douglas
Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Stephen A. Douglas[Douglas]
Douglas, Stephen A.
[p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln]
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[g]United States;June 16-Oct. 15, 1858: Lincoln-Douglas Debates[3240]
[c]Government and politics;June 16-Oct. 15, 1858: Lincoln-Douglas Debates[3240]

Recent disturbances in Kansas were upsetting the Democratic Party. Although many Democrats had opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854[Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854];and Democratic Party[Democratic Party] from its enactment, others opposed it only after the situation in Kansas had deteriorated badly and the administrations of Presidents Franklin Pierce Pierce, Franklin
[p]Pierce, Franklin;and Kansas[Kansas] and James Buchanan Buchanan, James
[p]Buchanan, James;and Kansas[Kansas] continued to demand the admission of Kansas as a slave state. The proslavery Lecompton constitution State constitutions;Kansas that had been proposed in Kansas Kansas;constitutions and Buchanan’s insistence that Congress admit Kansas under it caused the Democratic Party split. Stephen A. Douglas, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, broke with Buchanan to lead the opposition to the admission of Kansas as a slave state because a majority of the people in Kansas wanted it to be free. At the same time, Douglas faced the task of defending his Senate seat against a challenge from the well-organized Republican Party.

Before the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution Constitution, U.S.;Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, U.S. senators Senators, U.S., election of were elected by state legislatures, not by popular vote. Candidates normally did not conduct statewide campaigns for the office, and parties seeking to remove incumbents normally did not designate official party candidates to challenge the incumbents. However, during the late 1850’s, the times were not normal, and Republicans Republican Party;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln] in Illinois formally nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for Douglas’s Senate seat. Lincoln then challenged Douglas to a series of debates, and Douglas accepted. Douglas was well aware that his political future was at stake but hoped to turn to his advantage the anti-Lecompton stand that he had taken on the admission of Kansas to statehood. By contrast, Lincoln had little to lose in the debates. He had served only one term in the House of Representatives and had already failed in his bid for Illinois’s other Senate seat when he opposed Lyman Trumbull Trumbull, Lyman in 1856.

Lincoln and Douglas made a thorough canvass of Illinois in 1858. Lincoln traveled more than forty-five hundred miles and Douglas more than five thousand. Each candidate made about sixty speeches and numerous impromptu appearances, mostly from the rear platforms of railroad cars. Their speeches and the seven debates, in which they met face-to-face, attracted tens of thousands of listeners and received wide newspaper coverage. The debates transformed Lincoln into a person of national reputation.

Lincoln Republican Party;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln] received his nomination for the Senate seat at the Republican state convention in Springfield in June, 1858. In his acceptance speech, which he delivered on June 16, he included a phrase from the Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Bible[Bible] New Testament that was arguably the most radical of his career: “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matt. 12:25). Although that speech was not part of Lincoln’s formal debates with Douglas, its “house divided” theme set the tone for his entire campaign. While avoiding any explicit statements that he would formally work to end slavery, Lincoln continued to defend his prophecy throughout his campaign; Douglas argued equally vehemently that the nation had always existed “half slave and half free” and could continue to do so.

On July 9, Douglas replied to Lincoln’s statements in Chicago, and Lincoln spoke again the next day. Their first formal debate was in Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, 1858, when they had an audience of thousand people. Douglas spoke first, hammering Lincoln and accusing him and the Republican Party of being a party of abolition. Caught unaware by Douglas’s ferocity, Lincoln stumbled through his own speech. He would be better prepared in the later debates.

Abraham Lincoln speaking as Stephen A. Douglas awaits his turn.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

On August 27, the candidates met again, at Freeport. This time, Lincoln took the offensive and trapped Douglas into conceding that residents of a U.S. territory had the authority to “exclude slavery prior to the formation of a State Constitution.” Douglas’s Douglas, Stephen A.
[p]Douglas, Stephen A.;Freeport Doctrine reply on that subject became known as the Freeport Doctrine—a position that placed Douglas at odds with much of the Democratic Party, which had believed the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision had ruled against popular sovereignty in the territories on the issue of slavery. The debates then moved on to Jonesboro on September 15, Charleston on September 18, Galesburg on October 7, Quincy on October 13, and Alton on October 15.

Both men had set their debate strategies before their first formal meeting. Lincoln Douglas, Stephen A.
[p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] concentrated on attacking Douglas for his authorship of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise. He charged that Douglas was a puppet of the slave-power conspiracy, that popular sovereignty had been buried by the Dred Scott decision, and that there was a national conspiracy to legitimize slavery in the free states. For his part, Douglas assailed Lincoln as an advocate of African American suffrage and charged him with attempted subversion of the Supreme Court. He accused Lincoln of opposing the Dred Scott decision on the grounds that it denied African American citizenship while masking an insidious intention to interfere with the domestic institutions of individual states.

Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and abolitionism[Abolitionism]
Abolitionism;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln]
Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and slavery[Slavery] was embarrassed by Douglas’s effort to associate him with abolitionism. While admitting his opposition to slavery, Lincoln acknowledged his own inability to offer a solution to the problem of slavery, short of abolition. Like Douglas, Lincoln believed that African Americans were basically inferior to Euro-Americans. However, he differed from Douglas in holding that slavery was an immoral system that was inconsistent with the principles and practices of democratic government. Lincoln insisted that the contagion of slavery must be kept out of the new territories.

Douglas countered by demanding that the settlers in the new territories decide on the issue of slavery themselves. Lincoln responded by pointing out that because the Dred Scott decision prohibited Congress from legislating on slavery in the territories, territorial legislatures were similarly prohibited from making such legislation because they were creations of the U.S. Congress. Seeking to salvage the concept of popular sovereignty, Douglas suggested at Freeport that regardless of the Dred Scott decision, the citizens of people of a territory could lawfully exclude slavery prior to forming their new state government, for slavery could not exist without the protection of a slave code, which would need to be enacted by the territorial legislature. At the conclusion of the joint canvass, Lincoln proposed that the principles of equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence should be applied to the new territories. Douglas concluded with the statement that the nation could endure forever half slave and half free.

In November’s national elections, the Republicans swept most of the northern states. However, Douglas was reelected in Illinois, even though the Republican state ticket drew 125,000 votes to 121,000 for the Douglas Democrats and 5,000 for the Buchanan Democrats. Democrats won forty-six seats in the Illinois state legislature to forty-one for the Republicans, and the Democratic-controlled legislature—not the popular vote—reelected Douglas to the Senate.


Despite Abraham Lincoln’s defeat in the senatorial contest, the campaign debates made him a national figure, one with a reputation for moderation that was attractive to former Whigs. The radical implications of his House Divided prediction had, by then, drifted into the background. Lincoln had more than held his own during the debates with Douglas, a well-known rival and formidable opponent. Lincoln’s words, although edited in contemporary newspapers, grabbed the attention of all who read them. Lincoln was well aware of the importance of public sentiment and would put this knowledge to excellent use the next time he faced Douglas, in the presidential election of 1860.

Further Reading

  • Angle, Paul M., ed. Created Equal? The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. Among the earlier collections of the debates. Although lacking the more accurate transcripts that were discovered later, it is still an excellent source.
  • Baringer, William E. Lincoln’s Rise to Power. Boston: Little, Brown, 1937. The story of Lincoln’s rise from a local Illinois politician to national prominence.
  • Beveridge, Albert J. Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928. Among the best works on Lincoln’s career prior to the presidency.
  • Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Nearly definitive study of Lincoln that includes recently discovered manuscripts from his early years in politics.
  • Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Examination of how Lincoln’s views on slavery evolved from his hesitant admissions in the 1858 debates to the point in his presidency when he decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which was the first major step toward abolition.
  • Holzer, Harold, ed. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Complete collection of the debates, including recently discovered transcripts that update much of the previously available material and now include the speakers’ asides and pauses. Excellent dramatization of the talks.
  • Jaffa, Harry. Crisis of the House Divided. New York: Doubleday, 1959. Perhaps the best work on the issues behind the debates, this work provides a good perspective for the issues that dominated American politics at that time.
  • Johannsen, Robert W. The Frontier, the Union, and Stephen A. Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Fifteen essays by Johannsen that examine such issues as slavery, secession, and the nature of the union during the 1850’s. Illuminates the contrasting views of Douglas and Lincoln on these questions.
  • _______. Stephen A. Douglas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Comprehensive biography and authoritative account of the career of Douglas.
  • Meyer, Daniel. Stephen Douglas and the American Union. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Well-researched biography, with particular focus on the slavery issue.

Missouri Compromise

Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments

Compromise of 1850

Congress Passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Birth of the Republican Party

Bleeding Kansas

Dred Scott v. Sandford

Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

Lincoln Is Elected U.S. President

Lincoln Is Inaugurated President

Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation

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Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Stephen A. Douglas[Douglas]
Douglas, Stephen A.
[p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln]
Illinois;Lincoln-Douglas debates[Lincoln Douglas debates]