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Lincoln's Biography

Debating Douglas on the National Stage, 1857-1858

By R.D. Monroe, Ph.D.

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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 opposition.

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" included African-Americans.

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.

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