American Slavery: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1858)


Figure 1.--

The most famous debate in the history of America occurred in 1858 between Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the most important figure in the Democratic Party, and Abraham Limcoln, a virtually unknown Illinois lawyer. This verbal duel between two skilled political debaters should be studied by any student of debate. The debates were, however, far more than a brilliant series of debates, the debates had a profound impact on American history. They both ruined Douglas' political career and made secession a forefone conclusion. There was no real issue until 1858 that profoundly motivated Lincoln. It was Stephen Douglas, the prominent Illinois Senator, that gave Lincoln an issue. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and popular soverignity. Now Linclon saw the possibility of slavery expanding. Lincoln did not dare to challenge slavery's existence--it was after all enshired in the Constitution and most Americans accepted or supported it. He had hoped, however, that it would slowly wither away. Now there was the possibility that it would expand. Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for Senator in 1858. Lincoln in the speech accepting the nomination made perhaps his most famous speech, questioning whether America coul endure both half slave and half free. The famed Lincoln-Douglas debates framed for the entire country the issue of slavery. Douglas accused Linclon of codeling the blacks. Lincon replie that while blacks may not be equal that they are entiled to the income that they earn from their labor. Douglas also stressed the importance of majority rule. Lincoln evoked moral principles. Lincoln won a small majority, a major accomplishment in heavily Democratic Illinois. He lost the election in the Democratic state legislature. In debating with Douglas, a principal Congressional engineer of the Compromise of 1850 which had postponed Civil War, Lincoln gained a national reputation. He continued speaking out, assuming the middle ground between the abolistionists and the slave holders of the South. The Lincoln-Douglas deabates were a key element that was to enable him to win the Republican nomination for President in 1860.

Stephen A. Douglas

Senator Stephen A. Douglas was the most important figure in the Democratic Party. The figures that had defined American politics disappeared after the Compromise of 1850 and new figures rose to replace them. Douglas played a prominent role in the Compromise of 1850. One of thiose was Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. He was called the Little Giant because of his small stature and substantial political accomplishments. Douglas was devoyed to the Union and did not think that slavery should stand in the way of the Union. Thus he was willing to compromose with the South. He strongly advicated a trans-continental railroad which he felt would help cement the Union. He believed that Popular Soverignty was a way of resolving the devisive issue of slavery. Douglas was very popular in Illinois and his election a foregone conclusion. The Whig Party had imploded and the new Republican Party a minority party. Douglas was widely seen as the next Democratic nominee for president.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was a virtually unknown Illinois lawyer. He had been a Whig and served one term in Congress. There was no real issue until 1858 that profoundly motivated Lincoln. This changed in The mid-1850s. It was Stephen Douglas, the prominent Illinois Senator, that gave Lincoln an issue. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and popular soverignity. Lincoln had been a long-term critic of slavery. He like many other northerners had assumed that slavery would gradually whither away. Now Linclon saw the possibility of slavery expanding. Lincoln was further outraged by Chief Justice Roger Taney's Dread Scott decesion (1857). He saw a conspiracy between Douglas and Taney to promote slavery. [Simon] Lincoln decided to run against Douglas for Senator in 1858. Lincoln in the speech accepting the nomination made perhaps his most famous speech, questioning whether America coul endure both half slave and half free. As an underdog candidate, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates. Douglas a formidable debater, readily accepted.

The Debates

The most famous debate in the history of America occurred in 1858 between Senator Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Political debates in the era before radio and television were seen not only as a political event, but a form of popular entertainment. This verbal duel between two skilled political debaters should be studied by any student of debate. The debates were, however, far more than a brilliant series of debates, the debates had a profound impact on American history. While Douglas won reelection, the febates with Lincoln both ruined Douglas' political career and made secession a forefone conclusion.

Lincoln's Tactics

Lincoln did not dare to challenge slavery's existence--it was after all left to the states by the Constitition. Most Americans accepted or supported it. And most of those that opposed it had profoundly racist attitudes toward blacks. The famed Lincoln-Douglas debates framed for the entire country the issue of slavery.

Douglas' Tactics

Douglas understanding the essentially racist attitudes of Americans sought to make the debates a discussion of slavery and blacks. He accused Linclon of codeling the blacks. Douglas also stressed the importance of majority rule.

Lincoln's Rebuttle

Lincon replied that while blacks may not be equal that they are entiled to the income that they earn from their labor. Lincoln evoked moral principles. He challenged Douglas on the Supreme Court Dread Scott decession asking Douglas if the decesion did not invalidate his doctrine of Popular Soverignity. I am not sure that Lincoln fully understood the potential impact of that question. He was probably thinking primarily as a debater trying to show ifalaxcies in his opponents thinking.

Freeport Doctrine

Douglas' answer to Linclon's question about the Supreme Court and Popular soverignity essentially ruined his careet. At Freeport Illinois he aserted that that regardless of the Supreme Court, the people of a territory could exclude slavery (August 27, 1858). This caused a virtual lighting bolt in American politics. It was one that Douglas did not fully appreciate. But the South was outraged. And it split the Democratic Party on a regional basis. Douglas until his statement had every prospect of winning the Democratic nomination and doinfg well in the South. But the Freeport Doctrine made his name anethma in the South. Lincoln had virtually singled hasndedly caused Douglas to split the Democratic Party in two.

Election Result

Lincoln won a small majority in the opular voting, a major accomplishment in heavily Democratic Illinois. He lost the election in the Democratic state legislature.

Larger Impact

In debating with Douglas, a principal Congressional engineer of the Compromise of 1850 which had postponed Civil War, Lincoln gained a national reputation. He continued speaking out, assuming the middle ground between the abolistionists and the slave holders of the South. The Lincoln-Douglas deabates were a key element that was to enable him to win the Republican nomination for President in 1860. And because Douglas has split the Democratic Party, Lincoln was able to win the election. And the South by abandoing Douglas had played a major role in Linclon's election.

Sources

Simon, James. Linclon and Chief Justice Taney (2006).







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Created: 5:51 AM 11/9/2006
Last updated: 8:33 AM 1/14/2007