The History

By the time the Senate race of 1858 rolled around, there had been a visible line drawn between the slave states and the free states. This line was put into literal existence with the Compromise of 1820, or Missouri Compromise, which had stated that no territory above the 36°30' line of latitude would be allowed to have slaves. However, this went against many of the held notions of government at the time, the most important of which was popular sovereignty: the right of a people to decide for themselves what is and is not legal/right/just/etc. Henry Clay had tried another compromise, The Compromise of 1850, which came out as a result of the newly formed state of Texas, and the expanding territory of California.

Ever since Missouri had entered the Union as a slave state, there had been an equal number of slave and free states. California's petition for statehood requested that they be a free state; many people felt a state did not have a right to limit a person's travel via this method. The Compromise of 1850 created the borders for Texas, abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C., allowed California to be a free state, and created the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act made it much easier for slaveowners to make claims on fugitive slaves. It also created a special branch of government whose sole concern was the return of fugitive slaves to their rightful masters.

One of Clay's major proponents, co-sponsors, and behind-the-scenes men was Stephen Douglas, then the junior Senator from Illinois. Douglas was a firm believer in popular sovereignty. In 1854, he introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. With the rapid expansion into the west, proslavery Congressmen did not want to see the entire West become free states, especially with the creation of the transcontinental railroad, which would create a much larger market for the agronomy-driven economy of the South. Douglas, who was at the time chairman of the Senate committee on Territories, is often criticized today for is dubious undertakings with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Many people suggest that Douglas only did it to cement his bid for the Presidency and make friends with the otherwise ambivalent Southern caucus.)

Whatever the case may have been, Douglas's bill did two important things: first, it repealed the Missouri Compromise outright, which angered many antislavery groups in America; and secondly, it gave the choice of slavery to the peoples of the two territories. (This is when the phrase "popular sovereignty" first enters into the public knowledge in reference to this right.) As a result of this legislation, both proslavery and abolitionist groups flooded into Kansas in order to win the "popular" vote for their cause. There was a lot of violence at this time, earning the area the name "Bleeding Kansas."

In 1857, members of the Kansas constitutional convention met in Lecompton to discuss their new Constitution. The antislavery members of the convention felt the whole idea was a farce and refused to attend. Thus, the Lecompton Constitution would have allowed Kansas to enter the Union as a slave state. However, antislavery candidates took over the state legislature that same year, and the Constitution was struck down by the voters. Douglas himself decried the Constitution, saying it did not represent true popular sovereignty. This won him a lot of respect from Republicans in the Senate and across the nation, who mistook (or overcompensated) his principled outrage for a moral one. Another well-spoken man from Illinois, the honorable Abraham Lincoln, had spoken out against the Constitution, but on the grounds that slavery was immoral.

Finally, the Dred Scott decision has just been made by the United States Supreme Court. Dred Scott was a slave whose owner had recently died. Although Scott was currently living in Missouri, his master had lived several years in Minnesota and Illinois, both of which were free states. Scott sued for his freedom and his citizenship. The Court instead ruled that he was not a citizen, and therefore could not sue for his freedom. The Court also ruled that the Missouri Compromise was null and void - that Congress had no right to exclude slaves from any state or territory.

The Speeches

With all of this history, the scene was set. Lincoln, the hard-nosed Republican, would take on Douglas, the incumbent and rather pleasing Democrat. Lincoln had an uphill battle; besides being the incumbent, Douglas had also managed to sway many Republicans and recently politically discharged Whigs with his fiery pronouncements on popular sovereignty and the power of the people to assert their views. On the other hand, Douglas needed to separate his views on the morality of slavery from his more principled view on states' rights.

Before the debates began, both Lincoln and Douglas had given stump speeches in Springfield and Chicago, stating their initial differences with each other. Lincoln began first, during his acceptance speech as the Republican nominee for the Senate seat. Here is where his famous use of the phrase "A house divided against itself cannot stand" was first used.

This point (the Dred Scott decision. -ed) is made in order that individual men may fill up the territories with slaves, without danger of losing them as property...

Here Lincoln touched on the first nasty point of this debate: slaves as property. Essentially, the Dred Scott decision gave men the right to travel with all of their "chattel" (including slaves) anywhere in the states.

Douglas's response was delivered on July 9, 1858, after his arrival home in Chicago from his duties in Washington. Here he brought up the major counterpoint to antislavery's argument: that of self-government.

It is no answer to this argument to say that slavery is an evil and hence should not be tolerated. You must allow people to decide for themselves whether this is good or evil.

Douglas's points on moral relativism notwithstanding, the general consensus at the time of these debates was that minority rights were still as important as majority rule.

The framers of the Constitution well understood that each locality, having separate and distinct interests, required separate and distinct laws, domestic institutions, and police regulations adapted to its own wants and conditions.

Here Douglas made the first reference to the United States Constitution. With the possible exception of the Bible, no other document was taken more seriously in America at the time. He also pointed out the important aspect of states' rights - the industrialization of the North had led to the widespread freedom for slaves there, whereas the South, with its vastly warmer climate, still relied heavily on agriculture, which required lots of help. Douglas understood this on its face, and parlayed it into the intentions of the Founding Fathers themselves.

I do not acknowledge that the negro must have civil and political rights everywhere or nowhere.

Here Douglas took his first step onto shaky ground: despite the explicit words of Thomas Jefferson (a slaveowner himself) that "all men are created equal," Douglas was confirming the de facto suspicions of all parties by stating the exclusivity of the statement. Douglas later went on to claim that America "is a nation of white people."

Lincoln followed this speech the next day, rebutting most of Douglas's comments that had been directed at Lincoln, namely that he was conspiring with sympathetic Democrats to nominate and back a third candidate to weaken Douglas's position. Lincoln also began speaking about the intentions of the framers of the Constitution.

Why did these old men, about the time of the adoption of the Constitution, decree that slavery should not go into the new territory, where it had not already gone? Why declare that within twenty years the African slave trade might be cut off from Congress? Why were all these acts?

Lincoln makes the argument that the end of slavery was and is inevitable. Lincoln stated that while he did intend to fight slavery where it already exists, he "will fight it where it does not yet."

Those arguments that are made, that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying; that as much is to be done for them as their condition will allow. What are these arguments? They are the argument that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world.

Lincoln rebutted Douglas's assertion that inferior races do not deserve equality; note carefully that Lincoln himself does that not refute that negroes (and Indians, also mentioned in Douglas's speech) are in fact not an inferior race. He merely points out that this should not factor in their citizenship and rights.

Again, Douglas spoke, this time in the capital of Springfield one week later. Here he mostly addressed Lincoln's idea that the foregone conclusion to the situation was that either the states would become all slave states or all free states.

I believe that the Union can only be preserved by maintaining inviolate the Constitution of the U.S. as our fathers have made it.

Douglas again made reference to the Constitution's sanctity. He later went on to mock Lincoln for thinking he could fight the Dred Scott decision: he told the audience Lincoln could not appeal higher than the Supreme Court, or simply reintroduce law the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional. (Apparently, Douglas thought Lincoln had little hope gaining momentum for a Constitutional amendment.)

I will never stop to inquire whether I approve or disapprove of the domestic institutions of a state.

Here again, Douglas declared his beliefs in both white supremacy and popular sovereignty. He also pointed out (correctly) that every signer of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. Surely they did not really believe that negroes were created equal?

Lincoln replied in speech that very same day, addressing minor points and again reiterating his own.

If Judge Douglas and his friends are not willing to stand by it, let them come up and amend it. Let them make it read that all men are created equal except negroes. Let us have it decided, whether the Declaration of Independence, in this blessed year of 1858, shall thus be amended.

Again, Lincoln brought about rhetoric about the sacred parchments of our country's youth - this time, the Declaration.

The Debates

All in all, there were 7 debates. Illinois at the time had 9 voting districts, but both Chicago and Springfield were excluded, the two having already spoke in both towns.

The debates were arranged by Douglas's staff at Lincoln's behest. They were held in the towns of (chronologically) Ottawa; Freeport; Jonesboro; Charleston; Galesburg; Quincy; and Alton.

The debates were largely the same rhetoric, due to the fact that they were campaigning to a new audience each time. Their original stances stayed the same:

  • Lincoln stood for the moral depravity of slavery, the intended stance of the Constitution, and the rights of people to exclude slavery from their states, while
  • Douglas stood for popular sovereignty, white superiority, and the current state of the Constitution.

Each debate began with an opening statement, a reply, and a brief rejoinder by the original speaker. They lasted anywhere from 2 hours to an astounding 4 ½ hours in Freeport! The audiences would gather around, sitting on blankets and making a picnic out of the day (can't you imagine all of this going on now?) and listening to the speakers while constantly adding their own views in the form of cheers, laughter, applause, and the occasional yell ("Hurrah for Lincoln!" "Good, good, hit him again!")

Some selected portions from the debates:

Do you support the Constitution if, knowing or believe there is a right established under it which needs specific legislation, you withhold that legislation?
Abraham Lincoln, Jonesboro
We have existed and prospered from that day to this thus divided (into slave and free states - ed.), and have increased with a rapidity never before equalled in wealth, the extension of territory, and all the elements of power and greatness, until we have become the first nation on the face of the globe. Why can we not thus continue to prosper?
Stephen Douglas, Charleston
I ask his attention to the fact that he felicitates himself to-day that all the Democrats of the free states are agreeing with him, while he omits to tell us that the Democrats of any slave state, agree with him.
Abraham Lincoln, Galesburg
When Judge Douglas says that whoever, or whatever community, wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.
Abraham Lincoln, Quincy
The Abolition party really think that under the Declaration of Independence the negro is equal to the white man, and that negro equality is an inalienable right conferred by the Almighty, and hence, that all human laws in violation of it are null and void. With such men it is no use for me to argue.
Stephen Douglas, Alton
It (the Dred Scott decision -ed.) has a tendency to dehumanize the negro to take away from him the right of ever striving to be a man.
Abraham Lincoln, Alton

The Aftermath

Finally, on November 5, 1858, the election was held. Although Lincoln won the popular vote 52%-48%, the election of Senators was determined by the General Assembly. The Assembly voted on a straight party ticket, and Douglas was re-elected, 54-46.

Lincoln, of course, went on to bigger and better things, but these debates were some of the most important discussions on slavery in America ever to take place. Many salient points were made regarding sovereignty, absolutism, states' rights, the evils of slavery, and the Constitution. What made the debate truly important was its ability to take a moral issue and bring it before the people in a quasi-political and logical context. Without extended proselytizing, the principles behind each argument were brought out and clarified. Such is the obvious endgame to fruitful discussion and debate.

All of the debates, as well as the speeches, are in the public domain and can be found at

/msg me with addenda, errata, etc. I will be adding more to this node about the context of each debate and such.