The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 were a series of seven debates between former House Representative Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, and the incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, a Democratic Party candidate, for a seat in the United States Senate. At the time, U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures; thus Lincoln and Douglas were vying for their respective parties to win control of the Illinois legislature. The debates previewed the issues that Lincoln would face in the 1860 presidential election. The main issue discussed in all seven debates was slavery.
In agreeing to the debates, Lincoln and Douglas decided to hold one debate in each of the nine congressional districts in Illinois. Because both had already spoken in two — Springfield and Chicago — within a day of each other, they decided that their “joint appearances” would be held only in the remaining seven districts.
The debates were held in seven towns in the state of Illinois: Ottawa on August 21, Freeport on August 27, Jonesboro on September 15, Charleston on September 18, Galesburg on October 7, Quincy on October 13, and Alton on October 15.
The debates in Freeport, Quincy and Alton drew especially large numbers of people from neighboring states, as the issue of slavery, or the peculiar institution, was of monumental importance to citizens across the nation. Newspaper coverage of the debates was intense. Major papers from Chicago sent stenographers to create complete texts of each debate, which newspapers across the United States reprinted in full, with some partisan edits. Newspapers that supported Douglas edited his speeches to remove any errors made by the stenographers and to correct grammatical errors, while they left Lincoln’s speeches in the rough form in which they had been transcribed. In the same way, Republican papers edited Lincoln’s speeches, but left the Douglas texts as reported.
After losing the election for Senator in Illinois, Lincoln edited the texts of all the debates and had them published in a book. The widespread coverage of the original debates and the subsequent popularity of the book led eventually to Lincoln’s nomination for President of the United States by the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago.
The format for each debate was: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute “rejoinder.” The candidates alternated speaking first. As the incumbent, Douglas spoke first in four of the debates.
Before the debates, Lincoln said that Douglas was encouraging fears of amalgamation of the races with enough success to drive thousands of people away from the Republican Party. Douglas tried to convince, especially the Democrats, that Lincoln was an abolitionist for saying that the American Declaration of Independence applied to blacks as well as whites. Lincoln called a self-evident truth “the electric cord … that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together.”
Lincoln argued in his House Divided Speech that Douglas was part of a conspiracy to nationalize slavery. Lincoln said that ending the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in Kansas and Nebraska was the first step in this direction, and that the Dred Scott decision was another step in the direction of spreading slavery into Northern territories. Lincoln expressed the fear that the next Dred Scott decision would make Illinois a slave state.
Both Lincoln and Douglas had opposition. Although Lincoln was a former Whig, the prominent former Whig Judge Theophilus Lyle Dickey said that Lincoln was too closely tied to the abolitionists, and supported Douglas. But Democratic President James Buchanan opposed Douglas for defeating the Lecompton Constitution, and set up a rival National Democratic party that drew votes away from him.
Lincoln and Douglas each exaggerated the extremism of the other. Lincoln was more moderate than the abolitionists, and Douglas defeated a southern attempt to use vote fraud to have Kansas admitted as a slave state.
 The debates
US Postage Stamp, 1958 issue, 4c, commemorating the Lincoln and Douglas debates.
The main theme of the debates was slavery, especially the issue of slavery’s expansion into the territories. It was Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and replaced it with the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which meant that the people of a territory could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. Lincoln said that popular sovereignty would nationalize and perpetuate slavery. Douglas argued that both Whigs and Democrats believed in popular sovereignty and that the Compromise of 1850 was an example of this. Lincoln said that the national policy was to limit the spread of slavery, and mentioned (both at Jonesboro and later in his Cooper Union Address) the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which banned slavery from a large part of the modern-day Midwest, as an example of this policy. The Compromise of 1850 allowed the territories of Utah and New Mexico to decide for or against slavery, but it also allowed the admission of California as a free state, reduced the size of the slave state of Texas by adjusting the boundary, and ended the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in the District of Columbia. In return, the South got a stronger fugitive slave law than the version mentioned in the Constitution. Whereas Douglas said that the Compromise of 1850 replaced the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north and west of the state of Missouri, Lincoln said that this was false, and that Popular Sovereignty and the Dred Scott decision were a departure from the policies of the past that would nationalize slavery.
There were partisan remarks, such as Douglas’ accusations that members of the “Black Republican” party, such as Lincoln, were abolitionists. Douglas cited as proof Lincoln’s House Divided Speech in which he said, ” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half Slave and half Free.” As Douglas said, (audience response in parentheses)
||[U]niformity in the local laws and institutions of the different States is neither possible or desirable. If uniformity had been adopted when the Government was established, it must inevitably have been the uniformity of slavery everywhere, or else the uniformity of negro citizenship and negro equality everywhere. …I ask you, are you in favor of conferring upon the negro the rights and privileges of citizenship? (“No, no.”) Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, (“never,”) and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, (“no, no,”) in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? (“Never,” “no.”) If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro. (“Never, never.”) For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. (Cheers.) I believe this Government was made on the white basis. (“Good.”) I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races. (“Good for you.” “Douglas forever.”)
Mr. Lincoln, following the example and lead of all the little Abolition orators, who go around and lecture in the basements of schools and churches, reads from the Declaration of Independence, that all men were created equal, and then asks, how can you deprive a negro of that equality which God and the Declaration of Independence awards to him? … Now, I hold that Illinois had a right to abolish and prohibit slavery as she did, and I hold that Kentucky has the same right to continue and protect slavery that Illinois had to abolish it. I hold that New York had as much right to abolish slavery as Virginia has to continue it, and that each and every State of this Union is a sovereign power, with the right to do as it pleases upon this question of slavery, and upon all its domestic institutions. … And why can we not adhere to the great principle of self-government, upon which our institutions were originally based. (“We can.”) I believe that this new doctrine preached by Mr. Lincoln and his party will dissolve the Union if it succeeds. They are trying to array all the Northern States in one body against the South, to excite a sectional war between the free States and the slave States, in order that the one or the other may be driven to the wall.
Douglas also charged Lincoln with opposing the Dred Scott decision because “it deprives the negro of the rights and privileges of citizenship.” Lincoln responded that “the next Dred Scott decision” could allow slavery to spread into free states. Douglas accused Lincoln of wanting to overthrow state laws that excluded blacks from states such as Illinois, which were popular with the northern Democrats. Lincoln did not argue for complete social equality. However, he did say Douglas ignored the basic humanity of blacks, and that slaves did have an equal right to liberty. As Lincoln said,
||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.
As Lincoln said,
||This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites-causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty-criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
Lincoln said he himself didn’t know how emancipation should happen. He believed in colonization, but admitted that this was impractical. Without colonization he said that it would be wrong for emancipated slaves to be treated as “underlings,” but that there was a large opposition to social and political equality, and that “a universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded.” Lincoln said that Douglas’ public indifference to slavery would result in slavery expansion because it would mold public sentiment to accept slavery. As Lincoln said,
||Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
Lincoln said Douglas “cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up,” and that, in the words of Henry Clay, he would “blow out the moral lights around us” and eradicate the love of liberty.
At the debate at Freeport Lincoln forced Douglas to choose between two options, either of which would damage Douglas’ popularity and chances of getting reelected. Lincoln asked Douglas to reconcile popular sovereignty with the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. Douglas responded 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. Douglas alienated Southerners with this Freeport Doctrine, which damaged his chances of winning the Presidency in 1860. As a result, Southern politicians would use their demand for a slave code for territories such as Kansas to drive a wedge between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party. In splitting what was the majority political party in 1858 (the Democratic Party), Southerners guaranteed the election of Lincoln, the nominee of the newly formed Republican Party, in 1860.19th