The Lincoln-Douglas Debates Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Stephen A. Douglas was a national figure and leader in the Senate, having helped pass compromises on slavery. Abraham Lincoln was well known within Illinois as an anti-slavery advocate. As they were running for the Senate, these speeches communicated what was at the heart of each man’s position about the key issue of slavery. While touching on a few other subjects, slavery was the issue of the day. The texts of the speeches were published nationwide and helped to galvanize public opinion on both sides of the slavery issue. The positions each man took not only determined the outcome of the Senatorial election, but of the presidential election of 1860.

Summary Overview

Stephen A. Douglas was a national figure and leader in the Senate, having helped pass compromises on slavery. Abraham Lincoln was well known within Illinois as an anti-slavery advocate. As they were running for the Senate, these speeches communicated what was at the heart of each man’s position about the key issue of slavery. While touching on a few other subjects, slavery was the issue of the day. The texts of the speeches were published nationwide and helped to galvanize public opinion on both sides of the slavery issue. The positions each man took not only determined the outcome of the Senatorial election, but of the presidential election of 1860.

Defining Moment

From the time the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, slavery had been a major factor in American politics. During the 1850’s, divisions over the issue of slavery had reached critical proportions. Prior to the senatorial contest of 1858, Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, had made clear his strong anti-slavery stance. Although Stephen Douglas, the Democrat, held a moderate position on slavery, he sought to keep the United States united, by such efforts as pushing the Senate to pass the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The Dred Scott case in 1857, forced the issue of slavery into an even brighter spotlight, and everyone knew that the national government would be called upon to once again deal with this issue. Thus, Lincoln and Douglas focused on this issue rather than what might be considered issues of importance only to the people of Illinois.

In 1858, senators were selected by the state legislatures, not by popular vote. In November, 1858, elections would be held statewide to choose members of the state legislature. The U.S. Senate election would be held the following January, by those elected in November. Thus, while the two men were appealing to the general public for support of their ambitions, Lincoln and Douglas did this by seeking support for their parties in the elections for the state legislature. With the Democratic Party winning in the south, and the Republican Party in the north, the result was that there were fifty-four Democrats and forty-six Republics in the Illinois General Assembly and State Senate. The January vote for senator was strictly along party lines. However, both Lincoln and Douglas gained such national support from these debates that their respective parties looked to them as presidential candidates in 1860.

Author Biography

Stephen A. Douglas was born on April 23, 1813 in Brandon, Vermont. In 1833, he moved to Illinois, where he taught school for a year. Going into politics, by age twenty-seven, he had already been a State’s Attorney, representative in the State House, the Illinois Secretary of State, and a judge on the state Supreme Court. In 1843 he became a member of the United States House of Representatives. In 1846 Douglas was elected to the U.S. Senate for the first of his three terms.

As a Representative, he supported the Mexican-American War. As a Senator, he worked hard to preserve the Union by compromise on the issue of slavery and by developing stronger inter-regional economic ties. Douglas supported several key legislative items which reflected this. Thus, on slavery, he worked hard to pass the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and worked to expand the railroads. After two previous tries, in 1860, he was finally nominated to be president, but the Democratic Party was badly split. After Lincoln was elected, Douglas worked with him to try to stop the Southern secession, until Douglas died in Chicago on June 3, 1861.

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in Kentucky. In 1816, his family moved to Indiana, and in 1830 they moved to Illinois. He co-owned a small business and was unsuccessful in his first few attempts to win elected office. While teaching himself law, he won his first of four terms as a representative in the Illinois House. In 1846, he was the only Whig elected from Illinois to the U.S. House of Representatives, with the pledge to serve only one term. He was opposed to the Mexican-American War and tried, but failed, to end slavery in the District of Columbia.

Lincoln stayed out of politics until Douglas’ support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act drew him back. As the Whig Party disintegrated, Lincoln helped found the Republican Party. In this 1858 campaign, Lincoln gave the famous “House Divided” speech when accepting the nomination. Although losing to Douglas, he gained enough fame to be nominated by the Republicans for president in 1860, easily winning the four-way race. His victory caused the Southern states to secede, resulting in the Civil War. During the war he freed the slaves in the Southern states and gave strong leadership to the war effort. As the war drew to a close, he was assassinated, dying on April 15, 1865.

Document Analysis

In political campaigns, each candidate tries to use tactics which will be advantageous for himself/herself. During the 1858 senatorial campaign, this was very much the case. Douglas , as the incumbent, did not want to give Lincoln any additional stature by appearing with him. Lincoln wanted joint speeches, but if that were not possible then he planned to follow Douglas around the state and give a speech the day after Douglas spoke. When Douglas saw the advantage this was giving Lincoln, since Douglas could not refute anything Lincoln said, Douglas agreed to seven joint appearances which were termed debates. The format was for one person to speak for an hour, the second to speak for an hour and a half, and then the first person to speak again for half an hour. It was not a modern-style debate, but it did give the people an opportunity to see and hear both men. The speeches used for this article are Douglas’ speech at Freeport, the second debate, and Lincoln’s speech at Galesburg, the fifth debate. As was always the case prior to people having the ability to make audio recordings of speeches, there are slightly different versions which have come down from that time. The Republicans and Democrats had stenographers transcribe the speeches, but in the copies which were ultimately printed, each party often “improved” their candidate’s speech while leaving the other’s in a rough form. This did not alter the ideology, just the style.

In the first debate, Douglas went first and put Lincoln on the defensive raising several questions about to Lincoln’s anti-Mexican-American War stance, and the radical anti-slavery platform of the Republicans in the 1854 senatorial election. At this second debate, Lincoln spoke first, and among his remarks finally explicitly responded to the questions Douglas had raised, while raising four of his own dealing with the territories of the United States, slavery, and the recent Supreme Court ruling (Dred Scott Case). Douglas began by giving false praise to Lincoln for being led (by Douglas) to finally “define his position on certain political questions to which I called his attention at Ottawa.” He then disparaged Lincoln’s questions as not based on the Republican Party platform, but Lincoln’s “own curiosity.” Some people think that Lincoln asked these questions looking beyond this election, to the future of the two political parties. Whatever the reason, Douglas responded to them in a way which generally was in line with the opinions of Illinois voters in 1858, but not necessarily with the broader Democratic Party.

Lincoln had asked whether Douglas would vote to admit Kansas, which according to some did not have enough people to normally qualify for admission. After dwelling at length on the fact that the Republican Congressman from Freeport’s district had voted against admitting Oregon due to population concerns, Douglas went on to say he would vote for its admission, whether slave or free. In light of the Dred Scott ruling stating that Congress could not make laws regulating slavery in the territories, Lincoln asked if Douglas if the people of the territory could ban slavery prior to statehood. Douglas was best known for his advocacy of popular sovereignty, which normally applied at the state level, but here applied it to a territory. Douglas stated that voters in a territory could “exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution.” Ever since the Dred Scott ruling, Douglas had been trying to walk a fine line between ignoring the Supreme Court ruling and allowing slavery to spread throughout the nation’s western territories. In light of that ruling, Lincoln asked if Douglas would support the Supreme Court if it ruled that slavery was legal everywhere. Douglas did not really answer this, but stated that the Supreme Court would never do anything unconstitutional and therefore, Douglas supported its rulings. The fourth question was whether Douglas would support the territorial expansion of the United States, regardless of the slavery question. Douglas estimated that it would be fifteen years before any more territory would be needed, but he would support further expansion with the understanding that the local people would make the final decision regarding slavery. Even in a free state such as Illinois most whites looked down on blacks. Thus, in answering this final question Douglas used the phrase Black Republicans to refer to Lincoln’s party. He sought to gain further advantage by disparaging Lincoln’s views, as Douglas pretended to be open minded on the issue of race by stating, “All I have to say on that subject is, that those of you who believe that the negro is your equal and ought to be on an equality with you socially, politically, and legally, have a right to entertain those opinions.”

After responding to Lincoln’s questions, Douglas then moved onto points which he made repeatedly throughout all the debates. This was to paint the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln as extremists on the issue of slavery and against Douglas’ doctrine of popular sovereignty. The first Illinois Republican Convention in 1854 had adopted a very strong stand against slavery and against the expansion of slavery into new areas whether new territories or states. Although the 1858 Convention had not adopted as strong a stand, they did not repudiate it. Lincoln’s House Divided speech was seen by all as a strong statement against slavery. Previously, Lincoln had tried to partially evade the ramifications of the 1854 Convention’s statement by saying Douglas was wrong as to where it had been adopted. Douglas used this and tied it in with Lincoln’s objections to the Mexican-American War, in which Lincoln had asked President Polk to show him the spot on American soil where the Mexicans had attacked Americans. Douglas then read the 1854 founding document for the Republican Party, which clearly stated that slavery should be restricted to the current fifteen Southern states with legal sanctions against taking slaves elsewhere, including repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law. For Douglas, whose party was the majority party in most Southern states, this was taking rejection of slavery too far.

Douglas, in the remainder of his speech, kept up this constant attack that Lincoln and the “Black Republicans” were extremists on slavery, having moved completely into the abolitionist’s camp. He also attacked Lincoln for lack of consistency, since during this campaign Douglas asserted that Lincoln had not said if he would support the entry of additional slave States into the Union. The Illinois Republican Party’s founding documents, and the charge to those selecting a nominee for senator both made it clear that all their elected leaders must work to stop any spread of slavery. The preamble to the state’s Republican declaration of principles stated, “Human slavery is a violation of the principles of natural and revealed rights.” It called on anyone elected to vote to restore what had been the situation prior to the Dred Scott ruling. Douglas charged that Lincoln had been one of the individuals who had intentionally sabotaged the Whig Party, which had a moderate stance on slavery, in order to create the Republican Party with the more extreme anti-slavery stance. Douglas understood that the people of Illinois, a free state, were not strong advocates of slavery. The key to his position was that the people in a territory, or state, should make the decision regarding slavery and not the national government or courts. He believed that local officials and magistrates held the key as to whether or not slavery could survive in a particular locality. Sometimes called his Freeport Doctrine, Douglas throughout the campaign pushed local popular sovereignty as the answer to any question about slavery, rather than taking a firm stand on one side or the other. However, this ended up putting him on the side of accepting slavery, which while it did not hurt him in the 1858 senatorial election, was devastating to his candidacy in the 1860 presidential election.

By the Fifth Debate, the pattern of the speeches and the major points which each man emphasized had been fairly well set. Lincoln, who spoke second, began his speech with the assertion that Douglas was saying the same old thing in speech after speech. Since much of the same could have been said about Lincoln, Lincoln took this opportunity to take a slightly new approach based on a reference which Douglas had made to the Declaration of Independence. Douglas had begun his speech with his usual refrain of popular sovereignty and then dealt extensively with the issue of Kansas and the various proposals which had been put forward for its statehood. Then he referred to a statement, made by Lincoln in Chicago, about the Declaration of Independence applying to everyone. Then Douglas stated that when Lincoln was seeking votes and speaking in the southern part of the state, he contradicted himself by saying whites were superior. In presenting his own views, Douglas stated that the American government “was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.” As for people of African descent, Douglas stated “it does not follow by any means that he should be a slave.” Douglas saw them as inferiors, who could not be citizens but should be given basic rights. Douglas ended by criticizing Lincoln’s desire that the national government mandate the country “become all one thing or all the other,” knowing that Lincoln meant that slavery should end.

Having listened to Douglas’ remarks, Lincoln began by clearly stating that he believed the Declaration of Independence did apply to everyone. Lincoln denied that his speeches were different, in his remarks on race, in different parts of the state. Rather Lincoln charged that Douglas tried to avoid being linked with the Democrats in the South. Lincoln denied any major differences among his speeches, but affirmed that politically “the inferior races are our equals.” This indicates that Lincoln was a man of the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first. Lincoln accepted that there were differences between blacks and whites, but was open to new possibilities–as he stated, “I have never manifested any impatience with the necessities that spring from the actual presence of black people amongst us.” He was willing to let slavery continue in the South, but stated that in other states and territories it should not be introduced, but that freedom and liberty should be the norm, based upon the historical precedent of seeking “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” For 1858, this interpretation of the Declaration of Independence was very liberal. Looking a few years into the future, this point was the most important one within the speech, as it was seen by the Southern states as an indicator that when president, Lincoln would work to totally end slavery, even though he had said it could remain in the South.

Douglas had also charged that the Republican Party was a sectional party, with strength only in the North. Lincoln did not dispute that, but made the claim it was because the people in the South did not allow the Republicans to organize, and also stated that in the near future the Democratic Party would be a sectional party, meaning it would be basically only in the South. Lincoln also disputed with Douglas that the bills establishing the New Mexico and Utah Territories were a pattern which was, or even should have been, followed in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln asserted that since New Mexico and Utah were set up as part of a compromise, they were a special case. Also, the bills said the territories could vote to apply as a slave or Free State, but said nothing about them as a territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act did make the territories open for slavery.

Lincoln continued to attack Douglas on the statement Douglas had made many times: Douglas did not “care whether slavery is voted up or down.” This meant, Lincoln charged, that Douglas did not see slavery as something which was wrong. Lincoln, on the other hand, made it clear that he was one who saw “slavery as a moral, social and political evil.” Lincoln also denied that the Illinois Republicans were working with the National Democratic Party, as was believed by some because of the 1854 Senate race. This was part of the reason some people would believe Douglas’ charge. Lincoln completed his speech by dealing with the source of the radical 1854 statements on slavery and then commenting upon the Dred Scott case in such a way as to make it clear that he did not accept the verdict. Lincoln said that the reasoning used in the case was not wrong; rather, the premise that the Constitution guaranteed the right to own slaves was incorrect. Lincoln charged that Douglas’ openness to slavery was more than just letting people choose, Douglas’ acceptance of slavery and his support of the Dred Scott decision meant, in Lincoln’s opinion that Douglas was “preparing… the way for making the institution of slavery national!” In addition, Lincoln depicted Douglas as supporting the enlargement of the United States into Mexico and beyond, not just to meet the needs of its citizens but, more important, to gain “additional slave fields.” Lincoln depicted Douglas as upholding slavery in such a way that even Illinois, as a free state, would not be safe from slaveholders moving into the state in the future. He asserted that allowing Douglas to return to the Senate and continue to implement his political views, would not only hinder attempts to limit slavery, but could lead to the destruction of the nation.

Essential Themes

Lincoln concluded his speech at Galesburg with the statement, “this slavery question has been the only one that has ever endangered our Republican institutions–the only one that has ever threatened or menaced a dissolution of the Union–that has ever disturbed us in such a way as to make us fear for the perpetuity of our liberty.” Because this issue was the focus of national politics, it was also the focus for the races to be a part of the national government. Stephen A. Douglas had been a leader not only in the Democratic Party, but also among those who had tried to seek out compromises on the issue in order to keep the nation unified. Throughout the debates he continually asserted that the people in each individual territory or state should make their own decision about slavery. He believed that in this way the recent Dred Scott ruling could be ignored and the North and South could remain together. In this way, he also believed that he could be victorious in his bid to return to the Senate. Lincoln saw slavery as a “moral evil” which ultimately should be banned. Although he was enough of a realist to know that nothing could be done about it in the current slave states, he was insistent that it should not be allowed to spread any further. His message of the equality of all people, framed within the words of the Declaration of Independence, was one which he hoped would resonate with voters and allow him to enter the Senate. Although Douglas, and his supporters, won this contest, the publication of the debates and their national distribution gave the two men the stature which would enable them to both be nominated for president two years later.

  • Holzer, Harold, ed. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text. New York: Fordham UP, 2004. Print.
  • National Park Service. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Washington: Department of the Interior, 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2013.
Additional Reading
  • C-SPAN American History TV. Lincoln-Douglas Debate Reenactment. Washington, D.C.: National Cable Satellite Corporation, 2011. Web.
  • Civil War Research Engine. House Divided: Lincoln-Douglas Debates Digital Classroom. Carlisle, Penn.: Dickinson College, 2010. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
  • Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America. New York: Simon et Schuster, 2008. Print.
  • Johannsen, Robert Walter. Stephen A. Douglas. New York: Oxford UP, 1997 ed. Print.
  • LincolnNet. The Lincoln/Douglas Debates of 1858. Lincoln Library, Northern Illinois U, 2002. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
  • Winkle, Kenneth J. The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln. Dallas: Taylor, 2001. Print.
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