Debating Douglas on the National Stage, 1857-1858

By R.D. Monroe

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 Party.

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 see our additional materials in the The Lincoln/Douglas Debates of 1858 portion of the website.