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The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Erin Schulmeister
Waterloo High School, Waterloo

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates are significant in our nation's political history and the formation of our beliefs. Those debates stemmed from the senatorial campaign in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. The Republicans chose Abraham Lincoln, a Springfield native, as their candidate. The Democrats nominated the senatorial incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas, from Chicago. These skilled politicians campaigned vigorously throughout Illinois for four months during the fall of 1858. In seven towns they debated publicly. By election day on November 2, the people of Illinois were keenly aware of the key issues of each man's platform.

Lincoln and Douglas debated the expansion of slavery, the authority of states to control slavery within their own borders, and whether the Dred Scott decision had been a wise one. In the Dred Scott decision, the United States Supreme Court stated that a slave was not a human being, and therefore was not allowed to sue for his freedom. Lincoln's and Douglas's opinions on the expansion of slavery were quite different. Lincoln opposed expansion, while Douglas believed in popular sovereignty, or the ability of each state government to determine its own laws and policies.

The first debate occurred in Ottawa on August 21, 1858. Nearly twelve thousand people from all parts of Illinois attended. A New York journalist, Henry Villard, wrote, "the unprejudiced mind felt at once that, while there was on the one side a skillful dialectician and debater arguing a wrong and weak cause, there was on the other a thoroughly earnest and truthful man, inspired by sound convictions in consonance with the true spirit of American institutions." Supporters of both sides left the debate encouraged.

Lincoln and Douglas next met in Freeport on August 27, 1858. Here Lincoln asked Douglas, "Can the people of the United States Territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?" Douglas answered that it was up to the people of the territory to allow slavery or ban slavery from that region. This argument was based on Douglas's belief that popular sovereignty was compatible with the Dred Scott decision. His answer is known today as the "Freeport Doctrine." At the time of the debates, it raised great controversy throughout the country.

This pamphlet contains the arguments of Lincoln and Douglas when they debated at Alton.


The southern Illinois town of Jonesboro was the sight of the third debate on September 15, 1858. Approximately two thousand people, mostly Democrats, witnessed the debate. On this occasion, Douglas accused Lincoln of conspiring with Lyman Trumball, a Democrat who supported Lincoln and the Republican cause, to abolitionize both parties. Knowing there was little chance of gaining much popularity among these proslavery supporters, Lincoln wisely refused to respond and again questioned Douglas's "Freeport Doctrine."

On September 18, 1858, in Charleston, the candidates met for the fourth time. Douglas was greeted at the Illinois Central Railroad station by a two-and-a-half-mile-long parade of supporters. Lincoln also was welcomed by a two-mile procession of his supporters. Lincoln's procession was led by the Bowling Green Band from Indiana. The debate took place on the fairgrounds outside Charleston before fifteen thousand people, all enthusiastically waving flags and banners in support of their favorite candidate.

The fifth debate occurred in Galesburg on October 7, 1858. It attracted the largest crowd, mostly Lincoln's supporters. As Lincoln and Douglas spoke from a platform that was built at the end of Knox College campus, Douglas appeared to



This photograph was taken in Ottawa where Lincoln and Douglas held their first debate.

be tired of campaigning, while Lincoln seemed to be invigorated.

The sixth debate took place at Quincy on October 13, 1858. In this debate, Lincoln made it clear that he believed slavery to be "a moral, a social, and a political wrong," but that he had no intention of terminating slavery in the states where it already existed. All he wished to achieve was to reverse the trend of expansion. This declaration was an important turning point in the debates.

The final debate occurred on October 15, 1858, in Alton. Thousands of spectators gathered to hear the closing arguments the debaters had prepared. Lincoln brought his argument to an end with these notable words:

I have said and I repeat it here, that if there be a man amongst us who does not think that the institution of slavery is wrong in any one of the aspects of which I have spoken, he is misplaced and ought not to be with us. Has anything ever threatened the existence of this Union save and except this very institution of slavery? That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.

Election day, November 2, 1858, proved Lincoln to be the more popular of the two candidates. He received 4,085 more popular votes than Douglas. However, when the Illinois legislature voted for senator, Lincoln received forty-six votes compared to Douglas's fifty-four, and therefore lost the election. (Until the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, senators were chosen by the state legislatures without consideration of the popular vote.) In response to his defeat, Lincoln quipped, "I am too big to cry about it, but it hurts too awful bad to laugh!"

Lincoln emerged from the 1858 senatorial campaign a renowned orator and a respected individual. His straightforward, honest manner left a favorable impression on many people. His name became known far outside Illinois. Lincoln, unaware of the growing admiration the people of the nation had for him, could not have imagined that he would someday be remembered as one of the greatest men of all time.—[From Gabor S. Boritt, The Historian's Lincoln; David H. Donald, Lincoln; Anthony Gross, The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln; Philip B. Kunhardt, Lincoln; Stefan Lorant, Lincoln; Herbert Mitgang, The Fiery Trial.]


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