On the podium, the visual contrast between the two men was striking; Abraham Lincoln was tall and thin, while Stephen A. Douglas was almost a foot shorter and portly. When they spoke, the audience immediately noted that Douglas had a deep, booming voice, while Lincoln’s voice was a bit higher pitched but still carried well. Although Douglas was nearly theatrical in his presentation, striding back and forth as he gestured with his hands; Lincoln was almost immobile, except for minor hand movements. And, while Lincoln would interject humor, Douglas was almost continually intense. But a more important difference was political. In Illinois, Lincoln was an influential leader of the Republican Party, while Douglas often singularly drove the Democrat Party.
However, the Illinois audiences at the seven “Lincoln – Douglas” debates, held across the state, did not come to just observe and be entertained by these two politicians, they came to hear their ideas on the compelling issues of the day. Those citizens would soon vote for either Democrat or Republican legislators, who would then select the state’s next Senator.
And both men wanted the appointment!
Interestingly, Lincoln and Douglas did not really debate; not in the modern sense anyway. One would first speak for no more than an hour, the second man would speak (often in rebuttal) for ninety minutes, and then the first speaker would follow up for thirty minutes. After the allotted times, when the two men had raised, and responded to, important political and social issues of the day, they would occasionally banter back and forth to the delight of the crowds.
By 1858, when the debates occurred, the men had known each other for twenty-five years and had become friendly, but were not considered best friends. Each man respected the other as honorable and well-intentioned, and they often agreed on political positions which affected the economy of Illinois; for example, state and federal support for roads, railroads and waterway improvements. However, they had been on the opposite sides of nearly every other political matter which faced the State of Illinois and/or the United States of America during that time; for example, Douglas supported the Mexican War in 1846, but Lincoln opposed it.
And they were on different sides of one of the most explosive and urgent issues in that century; whether any new state should be admitted to the Union if that state’s Constitution permitted slavery. Most northern states did not want to admit any new state in which slavery would be legal, while southern states were insisting that new states permit (or at least not prohibit) slavery to assure the political balance was maintained in Congress between slave states and non-slave states. Further, while both men agreed that the Constitution recognized slavery in states where it currently was legal, they differed on the longer-term question; whether slavery should exist at all within the United States.
Douglas, who had already served two six-year terms in the Senate, could have chosen to avoid the debates with Lincoln. He was not required to meet with his opponent and, after all, the Illinois legislature was already controlled by the Democrats who were not expected to lose many seats in the 1858 election; nearly guaranteeing Douglas the appointment. So why did the incumbent choose to give his challenger a platform with which to possibly unseat him? Douglas never fully explained his reasoning; however, there may have been at least four factors in his decision. First, almost every time Douglas gave a speech in a community, Lincoln, who was a popular speaker, would show up after Douglas had finished and give a counter-argument. Second, Douglas enjoyed political give and take and knew he and Lincoln would create an entertaining show for the public. Third, he knew the debates, which would center on the topics surrounding slavery, would receive national attention in the press; and Douglas intended to be a candidate for President in 1860. What better way to get his message across to voters in every state? Those first three reasons were personal and even a bit self-serving. But, his fourth reason was honorable and patriotic; he believed in the Constitution and the preservation of the Union, and honestly felt that he could protect both, currently as a Senator and then later as President. He intended to spend the next two years in the Senate guiding the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions toward compromise (as he had successfully done in his previous two terms) and then, as President in 1861, assure those regional differences did not turn into Civil War.
For the prior ten years, Douglas had worked to bring about compromises in Congress between the states that rejected slavery (largely northern states) and those states in which slavery was legal and thriving (primarily in the South). Douglas did not believe, as many southerners did, that slavery was morally justified; he simply did not want the issue of slavery to tear apart the United States. So, whenever and wherever that threat arose, Douglas had become a mediator; or, “The Great Compromiser”, as he became known in the national press.
Lincoln and Douglas looked at the issue of slavery differently. Lincoln abhorred slavery, condemned the institution as unjust, and did not want to see slavery expanded to new states. Douglas promoted the democratic idea of “popular sovereignty” wherein a proposed new state’s citizens would vote on the question of slavery, and the U.S. Congress would accept that state into the Union, regardless of the outcome. On the other hand, Lincoln did not want any new state admitted to the Union unless that state’s constitution prohibited slavery; and he had said the country could not endure “half-slave and half-free.”
The two men did agree, however, on one national issue which, while related to the questions surrounding slavery, was distinctly different. They were both ferocious in their belief that the United States was inviolate and that any secession by southern states would be unconstitutional and illegal!
Most Americans know at least basic information about Lincoln, but conversely, know almost nothing about Stephen Arnold Douglas. He was five years younger than Lincoln, but they both began their political careers about the same time. Douglas had moved to Illinois 1833, when he was twenty, obtained his law license within a year, and quickly became active in the Democratic Party. He became a County Attorney, then in 1836, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. Since Lincoln had earlier been elected to that legislative body, the two men certainly became acquainted that year, but perhaps a year or two before.
We do know that, in 1836, they were on opposite sides of a resolution which stated that slavery, although not permitted in Illinois, must be recognized as a legal and Constitutional institution in certain states and that Illinois would respect slave ownership rights which existed in those other states. In Lincoln’s opposition, he stated: “We protest against the passage, we believe slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy.” Douglas supported the measure and it passed in the Democrat controlled legislature.
With Lincoln’s move from New Salem to Springfield, the state’s new Capital city, Douglas and Lincoln had numerous social as well as political interactions. Both men were single and considered to be eligible bachelors by the town’s matchmakers. For a short time, they both courted Mary Todd, the daughter of a Kentucky banker and slave owner; and her family much preferred Mr. Douglas who was reasonably well-to-do. But, in 1841, Mary chose Lincoln; so, it may be said that he won that round.
Douglas would not marry for another six years.
But Douglas’s political star was rising, while Lincoln’s was not. Lincoln had served four consecutive terms in the State Legislature and decided to forgo another campaign and focus on his law practice to better provide for his family.
Douglas, on the other hand, was riding a wave of support toward higher office. Although later known as the “Great Compromiser” by the national press, by contrast, in Illinois he was referred to in the press as the “Little Giant” because of his ability to successfully drive political issues through the Legislature. At age 27, in 1841, he persuaded the legislature to expand the Illinois Supreme Court and the new law also made each new Associate Justice a District Court Judge. Then, in a bold political move, Douglas had himself appointed as one of the new Supreme Court and District Court Judges.
In 1846, when he was only thirty-three years old, he was appointed as the new U.S. Senator from Illinois and resigned from the State Supreme Court. As a Senator, he quickly became a leader because he had an ability to work both sides of the aisle to reach consensus; whether on political or economic issues. In addition to his efforts to reach compromises on the expansion of slavery, he pushed through legislation to greatly expand the nations railway network; of course, with several main lines right through Illinois.
In 1847, Douglas married the daughter of a wealthy North Carolina plantation owner and, upon the death of his father-in-law a year later, Douglas’s wife inherited the property and over one hundred slaves. Douglas was appointed manager of the estate, which provided him with a substantial income for the rest of his life. However, Douglas wanted to protect his political career in Illinois, so he appointed a subordinate manager and never was actively involved in the plantation. Of course, political opponents in the North (but not Lincoln) were always ready to accuse Douglas of being a slave-owner.
But Douglas remained popular in Illinois and was re-appointed to the Senate for another six-year term in 1852.
While Douglas’s political career continued, Lincoln, after his last term in the Illinois legislature ended in 1841, focused on his law practice for the next fifteen years; except for a single term as a U.S. Congressman in 1847. However, he did not leave politics as some claim, but rather he actively supported other Whig (later Republican) candidates for local, state and national offices; and his influence continued to grow within his Party. Because he felt obligated to his old friends in the Whig party, Lincoln even made a half-hearted attempt to gain the state’s other Senate seat in 1854. He was not surprised, nor unhappy, when he lost.
Then, in 1857 Lincoln began a methodical march toward a run for Douglas’s Senate seat, which would next come up for appointment in 1858. It was a long shot because the Democrats continued to hold a majority in the Illinois Legislature which selected U.S. Senators; however, Lincoln was popular and he hoped, if Senator Douglas would accept his challenge to debate, that he might convince some Democrats to cross-over in support of his candidacy. Lincoln must have been pleased when Douglas agreed to a series of seven debates in different communities.
Those debates, measured by attendance, enthusiasm, and publication in newspapers around the country (and a subsequent best-selling book), were successful beyond either candidate’s expectations. And, Lincoln almost pulled it off! But, in the end, enough Democrat Legislators stuck together to appoint Douglas to another six-year term.
Perhaps, however, it could be said that Lincoln really won the debates. For the first time, Lincoln’s message denouncing slavery received national attention and, combined with his speech a few months later at Coopers Union in New York, which also was widely published, laid the groundwork for a presidential campaign in 1860.
Arguably, at least until then, Stephen A. Douglas had a more successful, and influential, political career than did Abraham Lincoln. However, when Douglas returned to Washington to begin his third term, he found that the Southern aristocracy had hardened their positions to protect the institution of slavery on which their economy was based. Douglas encountered resistance to compromise and heard more threats about secession as the Senators from Southern states openly discussed the option of forming a separate nation comprised of slave holding states. As a result, Douglas began to lose influence with many of the Southern Senators due to his position that secession was unconstitutional and illegal.
Throughout 1859 and 1860, Senator Douglas worked tirelessly to forge another compromise to avoid secession by several states, which he feared could lead to a disastrous Civil War. His health began to fail and friends noticed that he was aging rapidly. His hope to become President was fading, but he did win his Democratic Party’s nomination for President in the summer of 1860. However, the party had split into factions and Southern Democrats nominated another candidate. In December, in a four-man race, Abraham Lincoln was elected. Douglas received the second most public votes behind Lincoln, but was last in the Electoral College count. His political career was over.
The secession crisis began as soon as Abraham Lincoln was elected and, by April 1861, the nation was divided; and both sides were preparing for war.
After the Confederate attack at Fort Sumter, Stephen Douglas went to see his new President to pledge his support for Lincoln’s determination to re-unite the Country and preserve the Constitution; even if that meant all-out Civil War. Lincoln showed Douglas his executive order to raise 75,000 troops to which Douglas replied “make it 200,000.” Douglas also said in the meeting; “I have had many friends in the South who must at some level still be my friends, but we will also know we are enemies.” One of Douglas’s most famous quotes came in a speech he gave during this period when he said; “There are only two sides to this question. Every man must be for the United States or against it. There can be no neutrals in the war; only patriots and traitors.”
Over the next few months, Douglas did his best to help his President and his Country; but, he did not get very far. On June 3, 1861 he died. He was only 48 years old.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 became regarded by historians as the most famous and most effective in the history of the United States. Those debates articulated not only the crisis over slavery, but the potential for Civil War if secession by any states were to occur. Not even the Kennedy-Nixon debates over 100 years later, influenced events in this nation as did those seven debates – between two passionate and articulate politicians – in small towns – in the frontier state of Illinois.
Lincoln certainly deserves all the credit he receives for a grand political legacy. But, he may have never become President, had not Douglas, the “Little Giant” of Illinois, been willing to participate in those debates; and, as a result, helped introduce Abraham Lincoln to a national audience of voters.
So, in the long run, perhaps our Country was the real winner of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
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