In 1858 Lincoln's political
renasence brought him head to head with Stephen Douglas in a contest
for a seat in the United State Senate. Douglas had become a national
figure, a leader of the Democratic Party responsible for the Kansas-Nebraska
Act and the doctrine of "popular sovereignty." But Douglas's
bold actions had brought him into conflict with the leadership of the
Democratic Party, especially President James Buchanan, who seemed to
favor southern interests, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger
Taney, whose Dred Scott decision seemed to set aside popular sovereignty
and open the entire West for slavery.
Some Republicans seized
upon Douglas's differences with the Democratic leadership, especially
his refusal to go along with Buchanan's acceptance of a proslavery constitution
for the new state of Kansas that was forged in intimidation, violence
and deceit by pro-southern forces there, and urged that the party support
his re-election. But Lincoln, who hungered for the seat himself and
saw the triumph of slavery in Douglas's doctrines, marshalled the party's
During the campaign of
1858 Lincoln and Douglas met in seven public debates across the state
of Illinois. These forensic displays set out the candidates' platforms
for Illinois voters, but they also effectively articulated the Republican
and northern Democratic interpretations of the building sectional crisis,
while making constant reference to President Buchanan and Chief Justice
Taney's more unequivocal embrace of slavery as well.
In the debates Lincoln
pointed toward the combined, cumulative effect of the Kansas-Nebraska
Act, the Dred Scott decision and the debacle of "Bleeding Kansas"
as evidence that, despite Douglas's break with the administration, the
Democratic Party was leading the nation toward a future that included
slavery in every state and territory. Douglas vigorously defended his
doctrine of popular sovereignty, a position that exposed his disagreement
with the Democratic leadership. Yet he echoed Chief Justice Taney when
he flatly rejected blacks' basic humanity and argued that they could
never be American citizens. While Lincoln covered his flank from Douglas's
attacks by backing away from supporting full political and social equality
for African-Americans, he boldly argued that the Declaration of Independence's
guarantee of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"
This general claim, that
slavery was wrong because it violated fundamental freedoms guaranteed
to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence, became the Republican
Party's standard and informed Lincoln's Civil War presidency.
Despite his articulate challenge to the powerful Douglas, Lincoln failed
in his bid for the United States Senate in 1858. The Illinois Legislature
returned Stephen A. Douglas to his seat by a narrow margin. Lincoln
again feared that his political career was over. But Republicans beyond
Illinois had taken notice of his pronouncements in the debates with
Douglas. While he was not one of the party's leading officeholders,
Lincoln became a major Republican intellectual leader and spokesman.
The debates had returned him to the national stage.
For more information on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates visit our companion website, The Lincoln/Douglas Debates of 1858.