THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES
An excerpt from Mike's book, STEPHEN DOUGLAS
Copyright 2001 Chelsea House Publishers
Historians consider Stephen Douglas the toughest of Abraham Lincoln's political opponents. The two men battled each other
for nearly 20 years. The most notable campaigns between them took place in 1858 and 1860.
The 1858 campaign got underway when Lincoln challenged Douglas for his Senate seat. The 1860 contest saw them in
a fight for the presidency.
Two years before the 1858 campaign, Douglas married Washington socialite Adele Cutts. A grand-niece of First Lady
Dolley Madison, Adele was beautiful and warm-hearted. She took responsibility for Douglas's young sons, Robert and Stephen
Junior. The boys had been moved around among relatives since their mother died. Adele looked after them as if they were her
Adele's involvement allowed Douglas to pour all of his energy into politics. Additional problems were putting new
strains on his Popular Sovereignty plan.
It all started when a slave named Dred Scott sued for his freedom. Scott said that because his master had taken him
to places where slavery was illegal, Scott should be freed. The United States Supreme Court refused, ruling that Negroes were
not citizens and therefore had no rights.
Slave owners could take slaves into free territory as they saw fit.
Around the country, Republicans howled in protest. They did not want slaves going into territories out west. It made
whites angry to think that slave labor might take away jobs from free workers. In Illinois, Abraham Lincoln practiced his
arguments against the spread of slavery and waited for a chance to spring them on Douglas.
Lincoln got his chance, soon enough. The Republican Party of Illinois nominated him in 1858 to stand for the Senate
seat Douglas had held for ten years.
Knowing that he could not win in 1858 without doing something dramatic, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of
debates. Douglas believed he had nothing to gain from debating Lincoln, but was too competitive to refuse. They agreed to
seven debates, each to be staged at different towns around Illinois.
All seven debates followed a similar pattern. Douglas and Lincoln took turns making the opening remarks. The men
knew their arguments and how best to say them. For months they had been campaigning across Illinois, discussing the issues,
But these seven debates were truly special. At every one, Douglas and Lincoln exchanged remarks about slavery and
freedom that will never be forgotten.
People turned out in the small towns in droves to see and hear the two famous candidates. Everywhere enthusiastic
crowds jostled to get the best spots in front. Well-dressed and well groomed, Douglas traveled with Adele at his side. He
rode from debate to debate in a private train car with a cannon in the rear. The cannon boomed to let people know Steve Douglas
was in town.
Lincoln traveled alone, on a free ticket supplied to him as a railroad lawyer. In his hat, he kept little slips of
paper scrawled with notes for his speeches.
Their first debate at Ottawa in southern Illinois saw Douglas put forth his strongest effort. He accused Lincoln
of favoring Negroes over white people. If Lincoln wanted to consider the Negro his equal, he could do so. But Douglas did
not believe Negroes were equal to white people.
Douglas attacked Lincoln's political party as "Black Republicans" and said Lincoln wanted to free the slaves.
He said that Lincoln's views would lead to civil war.
Lincoln answered by saying that he did not want a civil war. But he stressed his belief that slavery was morally
wrong. Maybe, Lincoln said, Negroes were not the equal of whites in every way. But they WERE equal in their right to put food
into their mouths that their own hands had earned. Slavery, Lincoln said, took that right away from them. Worse, he said,
slavery was a monstrous evil because it gave black people no hope.
The rest of the debates rehashed the arguments from the first one. From August to October, Douglas and Lincoln debated,
with additional speeches in between. As the campaign wore on, Lincoln grew more confident. At their second debate in Freeport,
Lincoln caught Douglas in a snare. He asked if slavery could be kept out of a territory BEFORE it became a state. Douglas
answered that it could.
Douglas's answer angered pro-slavery Democrats like Jefferson Davis and President Buchanan. His answer did not cost
him in the Senate race, but hurt him badly in 1860.
By contrast, Lincoln's stirring moral arguments won him strong support around the country.
Douglas won the Senate race over Lincoln. Although the Republicans polled more votes, holdover Democrats in the state
legislature voted to keep Douglas in office. This was taken at a time when Senators were elected by a vote of the legislature,
not by the people.
After saving his Senate seat, Douglas spent the next two years running for president. Things grew worse in 1859 when
John Brown's band captured a Federal arms warehouse in Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Brown planned to use the guns and ammunition
there to start a slave revolt.
When the Democrats met in 1860 to nominate a candidate for president, southerners were still angry at Douglas. He
refused to be a "dough face" puppet of the slave interests. If slavery was excluded from some territories, Douglas
saw nothing wrong with it, as long as Popular Sovereignty was followed to the letter.
The southerners left the 1860 Democratic convention, splitting the party. The Republicans nominated Lincoln on the
third ballot, mainly because he had been so effective in his Illinois debates against Douglas.
The southern faction nominated another presidential candidate, John C. Breckinridge. Later, another southern group
put up a fourth candidate, John Bell. Douglas saw his chances for the presidency fade. Lincoln won the election of 1860, the
man Douglas had beaten in Illinois.
After the election, sectionalism split the country apart just as it split the Democratic Party. Eleven southern states
seceded and the Civil War broke out.
The two tough races against Lincoln had weakened Douglas physically. It hurt that his doctrine of Popular Sovereignty
had been exposed as a failure. After Lincoln took office, Douglas pledged his support in fighting the war. Only two kinds
of Americans existed now, Douglas said, "patriots or traitors."
In the end, Lincoln's ideas about halting slavery got him farther than Douglas's attempts to avoid the issue. A more
progressive thinker had won out.
Stephen Douglas wanted to expand the United States, no matter what. He did not care if expansion hurt the lives of
human beings he considered inferior. Lincoln, on the other hand, also held racist views. Despite that, Lincoln saw the future
clearly. Unlike Douglas, Lincoln was willing to say that slavery was wicked. Lincoln said that if slavery was not wrong, "nothing
During most of his life, Douglas exceeded Lincoln in his successes. But Douglas skirted the hard questions and looked
for easy solutions that would satisfy everyone. He won high office and enjoyed national fame. But his ideas failed to match
Lincoln's grasp of what needed to be done to fix a terrible wrong.
When Douglas spoke in front of a crowd, the people thrilled to hear his thundering oratory. But afterwards, when
the show was over, they thought long and hard about the things Lincoln had said to them.
In June of 1861, Douglas died unexpectedly at the age of 48. A towering monument to him stands near the shores of
Lake Michigan, in the city of Chicago.
By Mike Bonner