The Kansas-Nebraska Act
reignited sectional tensions by opening free territory to slavery. The
free-soil North and the proslavery South competed for dominance of
the new Kansas territory, a competition that turned violent. When Democratic
President James Buchanan accepted the proslavery Lecompton constitution
for Kansas in order to placate an increasingly strident South, Stephen
Douglas broke ranks with him and the Democratic party. The people of Kansas had rejected the Lecompton
constitution and slavery in a referendum, and Douglas declared that
to accept it in spite of that negative verdict would be a violation
of popular sovereignty. He helped defeat the Lecompton constitution in
Congress. Douglas had thus traveled a strange path from opening territory
to the slaveholding South in 1854, to standing against slavery's expansion
into that same territory. His stand effectively split the Democratic
Douglas's successful leadership
of the anti-Lecompton effort prompted some prominent members of the
infant Republican party, Horace Greeley for example, to urge support
for Douglas's 1858 re-election bid. Abraham Lincoln coveted the Illinois
seat in the United States Senate, and he and other Illinois Republicans
were anxious that the party not endorse the partisan Democrat with whom
they had struggled for many years. In their view, Douglas was the man
who caused the ongoing sectional strife when he abandoned the sacred
Missouri Compromise. Lincoln argued against any alliance with Douglas,
saying "let us all stand firm, making no committals as to strange
and new combinations." In June, 1858, Illinois Republicans met
in convention and nominated Lincoln as their candidate for the U.S.
Senate. Senators were then chosen by the state legislature, so neither
Douglas nor Lincoln appeared on the ballot in the subsequent election.
Lincoln delivered his memorable
"House Divided" speech at the convention, dramatically declaring
that the "government cannot endure, permanently half slave and
half free." He sought to make clear that real differences separated
Republicans and Douglas, thereby implicitly rebuking those who had wished
to endorse the Little Giant's candidacy. Lincoln advanced arguments that he would
recall in the ensuing debates. He sketched a conspiracy theory that
had Douglas acting in concert with Franklin Pierce, Roger Taney, and
James Buchanan to make slavery legal everywhere in the United States.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act that Douglas rammed through Congress and Pierce
signed repealed the Missouri Compromise and opened free territory to
slavery. Taney's Dred Scott decision gave slaveholders constitutional
protection to bring their slave property into the territories. Buchanan
sought to foist a proslavery constitution on the new state of Kansas.
These men were doing the bidding of the dread "Slave Power."
Lincoln suggested the next logical step would be a Supreme Court decision
permitting slavery anywhere in the United States.
Lincoln also contended
that Douglas's professed ambivalence as to whether slavery was accepted
or rejected by a territory exercising popular sovereignty was in effect
an endorsement of slavery's indefinite continuance and nationalization.
By contrast, Republicans recognized slavery was wrong, wished to prevent
its extension, and thereby placed it on a "course of ultimate extinction."
In the ensuing campaign,
Lincoln challenged Douglas to debate the issues, and the Little
Giant, the more well known of the two, reluctantly agreed. Seven
debates were scheduled: Ottawa, August 21; Freeport, August 27; Jonesboro,
September 15; Charleston, September 18; Galesburg, October 7; Quincy,
October 13, and Alton, October 15. The debates consisted of a one hour
opening speech, an hour and a half answer, and a half hour rebuttal,
with the two men alternating the privilege of opening and closing. The
contests drew immense crowds for the time, as thousands gathered underneath
the prairie sky to listen as two political titans traded rhetorical
thrusts and parries.
Douglas vigorously supported
his policy of popular sovereignty as a way to remove slavery from the
divisive national stage to the local level where democracy was at its
most immediate and best. Robert Johannsen has argued that Douglas believed
passionately in self-government, the right of the people directly affected
to decide for themselves the issue at hand. Douglas accused Lincoln
of fomenting civil war with his "house divided" language,
and suggested that Lincoln's opposition to the Mexican War was unpatriotic.
He played to the prevailing racism of Illinois in the most heavy-handed
manner, suggesting that Lincoln was an abolitionist seeking social and
political equality for African-Americans. Lincoln had suggested that
black Americans were included in the Declaration of Independence's famed
assertion that all men were created equal. To this, Douglas declared,
"I do not regard the negro as my equal, and positively deny that
he is my brother or any kin to me whatever." Having denied the
essential humanity of black Americans, Douglas affirmed that the government
"was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their
posterity for ever." Blacks could never be citizens and slavery
could exist forever.
Douglas's race card forced
Lincoln on the defensive in anti-black Illinois, and he devoted time
in the debates to denying that he supported black social and political
equality. He reaffirmed though, his belief in black humanity, that black
Americans were included in the Declaration of Independence. "There
is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the
natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right
to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as
much entitled to these as the white man." This strong acknowledgment
of the black man's humanity undermined the fundamental prop of the slave
system, that the slaves were somehow less than human. Lincoln returned
again and again to the conspiracy charge he had laid out in the House
Divided speech, that Douglas's policies would lead to the perpetuation
of slavery, its nationalization, and that Douglas was collaborating
with others to bring about this result.
When the votes were tallied, the Democrats had an edge in the Illinois
General Assembly, and Douglas was re-elected to the United States Senate.
Lincoln was disconsolate. "I now sink out of view, and shall be
forgotten," he lamented to a friend. But his spirited attacks on
popular sovereignty and his evocation of the founding fathers and the
Declaration of Independence to condemn slavery had struck a chord in
the North. His national reputation was made, and he would not be forgotten.
For more information on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates visit our companion website, The Lincoln/Douglas Debates of 1858.
Carwardine, Richard J. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Donald, David. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Fehrenbacher, Don E. Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.
Jaffa, Harry V. Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959; reprinted 1982.
Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1973; reprinted 1997.
Lincoln, Abraham. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858. Edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1989.
Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.