Historians have traditionally regarded the series of seven debates between Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln during the 1858 Illinois state election campaign as among the most significant statements in American political history. The issues they discussed were not only of critical importance to the sectional conflict over slavery and states’ rights but also touched deeper questions that would continue to influence political discourse. As Lincoln said, the issues would be discussed long after “these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent.”
What is often overlooked is that the debates were part of a larger campaign, that they were designed to achieve certain immediate political objectives, and that they reflected the characteristics of mid-nineteenth-century political rhetoric. Douglas, a member of Congress since 1843 and a nationally prominent spokesman for the Democratic party, was seeking reelection to a third term in the U.S. Senate, and Lincoln was running for Douglas’s Senate seat as a Republican. Because of Douglas’s political stature, the campaign attracted national attention. Its outcome, it was thought, would determine the ability of the Democratic party to maintain unity in the face of the divisive sectional and slavery issues, and some were convinced it would determine the viability of the Union itself. “The battle of the Union is to be fought in Illinois,” a Washington paper declared.
Although senators were elected by the state legislatures until 1913, Douglas and Lincoln took their arguments directly to the people. The timing of the campaign, the context of sectional animosity within which it was fought, the volatility of the slavery issue, and the instability of the party system combined to give the debates a special importance. Not long before, Douglas had defied President James Buchanan and the southern Democratic leadership when he opposed the admission of Kansas as a slave state under the controversial Lecompton constitution, a stand for which he received support from Republicans in Congress as well as their interest in his reelection. At the same time, Buchanan and the southern slave interests gave tacit (and in some instances explicit) support to Lincoln’s candidacy because of their hostility to Douglas. As a result of this strange alignment, Lincoln’s principal task was to keep Illinois Republicans from supporting Douglas by exposing the moral gulf that separated them from the senator and to win the support of radical abolitionists and former conservative Whigs. A relative newcomer to the antislavery cause (before 1854, he said, slavery had been a “minor question” with him), Lincoln used the debates to develop and strengthen the moral quality of his position.
The groundwork for the campaign was laid in Lincoln’s famous House Divided speech in Springfield on June 16, 1858. Douglas opened his campaign on July 9 in Chicago. By mid-August, the two candidates had agreed to a series of debates in seven of the state’s nine congressional districts.
Lincoln opened the campaign on an ominous note, warning that the agitation over slavery would not cease until a crisis had been passed that resulted either in the extension of slavery to all the territories and states or in its ultimate extinction. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he declared. Lincoln’s forecast was a statement of what would be known as the irrepressible conflict doctrine. The threat of slavery expansion, he believed, came not from the slaveholding South but from Douglas’s popular sovereignty position–allowing the territories to decide for themselves whether they wished to have slavery. Furthermore, Lincoln charged Douglas with conspiring to extend slavery to the free states as well as the territories, a false accusation that Douglas tried vainly to ignore. Fundamental to Lincoln’s argument was his conviction that slavery must be dealt with as a moral wrong. It violated the statement in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, and it ran counter to the intentions of the Founding Fathers. The “real issue” in his contest with Douglas, Lincoln insisted, was the issue of right and wrong, and he charged that his opponent was trying to uphold a wrong. Only the power of the federal government, as exercised by Congress, could ultimately extinguish slavery. At the same time, Lincoln assured southerners that he had no intention of interfering with slavery in the states where it existed and assured northerners that he was opposed to the political and social equality of the races, points on which he and Douglas agreed.
Douglas rejected Lincoln’s notion of an irrepressible conflict and disagreed with his analysis of the intentions of the Founding Fathers, pointing out that many of them were slaveholders who believed that each community should decide the question for itself. A devoted Jacksonian, he insisted that power should reside at the local level and should reflect the wishes of the people. He was convinced, however, that slavery would be effectively restricted for economic, geographic, and demographic reasons and that the territories, if allowed to decide, would choose to be free. In an important statement at Freeport, he held that the people could keep slavery out of their territories, in spite of the Dred Scott decision, simply by withholding the protection of the local law. Douglas was disturbed by Lincoln’s effort to resolve a controversial moral question by political means, warning that it could lead to civil war. Finally, Douglas placed his disagreement with Lincoln on the level of republican ideology, arguing that the contest was between consolidation and confederation, or as he put it, “one consolidated empire” as proposed by Lincoln versus a “confederacy of sovereign and equal states” as he proposed.
On election day, the voters of Illinois chose members of the state legislature who in turn reelected Douglas to the Senate in January 1859. Although Lincoln lost, the Republicans received more popular votes than the Democrats, signaling an important shift in the political character of the state. Moreover, Lincoln had gained a reputation throughout the North. He was invited to campaign for Republican candidates in other states and was now mentioned as a candidate for the presidency. In winning, Douglas further alienated the Buchanan administration and the South, was soon to be stripped of his power in the Senate, and contributed to the division of the Democratic party.