Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lincoln Douglas Debates

Lincoln Douglas Debates at Knox College (from a 
1912 postcard)
The Lincoln Douglas Debates came about because of a rift in the Republican Party in 1857. Stephen Douglas had broken away from the Democratic Party in the summer of that year over the slavery issue.

Horace Greeley requested the Illinois Republicans keep the seat open for Douglas as he attempted to woo him into the party.

To Lincoln this was a personal affront. Lincoln wrote, “Greeley is not doing me right. I am a true Republican, and have been tried already in the hottest part of the fight; and yet I find him taking up Douglas, a veritable dodger, once a tool of the south, now its enemy.”

In June of 1858 the Republican State Convention meeting at Springfield nominated Lincoln as their candidate for senate.

It was at this convention Lincoln uttered these famous words,

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be free.”

After that Lincoln accused Buchan, Taney, Pierce, and Douglas of trying to legalize slavery both in the North and the South. It was a brilliant move that forced Douglas to come out and defend his position.

What followed was the Lincoln Douglas Debates.

To his friends Douglas confided, “I do not feel between you and me, that I want to go into this debate. The whole country knows me and has me measured. Lincoln, as regards myself, is comparatively unknown, and if he gets the best of this debate, and I want to say he is the ablest man the Republicans have got, I shall lose everything, and he will gain everything.”

The debates took place between August 21 and October 15, 1858, with the first one being held at Ottawa, Illinois.

Stephen Douglas could best be described as a stuffy pompous ass. He had a special car on the Illinois Central Railroad, and often times it sped by Lincoln while he was sidetracked waiting for his train to begin moving.

Douglas was met at each stop by a brass band and a 32 gun salute, one for each state in the Union. Lincoln was carried to his speech either on the shoulders of his followers (as was done at Ottawa) or drawn there atop a hay wagon. His followers were contemptuous of Douglas’s pompousness.

In the end, Lincoln lost the race for senator, but won the race for President. His greatest victory in the debates came during the second debate held at Freeport. Against the better judgment of his advisors, Lincoln posed Douglas the following question – “Can the people of a 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 formulation of a State Constitution?”


Douglas’s answer was slavery could be kept out of the territories by legislation other than a state constitution. It became known as “the Freeport Doctrine,” and two years later at the Democratic Presidential Convention of 1860, the South refused to support Douglas as a candidate because of it.