As the nation hurtled towards disunion in the 1850s, a series of debates by Illinois Senatorial candidates captivated America. Just who won the infamous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 is arguable, though it had great significance in the inevitable march towards the Civil War.
By the late 1850s the issue of slavery was at the forefront of political discussions. Just what was to happen with the institution of slavery in the territories obtained through the Louisiana Purchase and Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo?
The landmark Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 as well as the infamous Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case attempted to settle the dispute once and for all. In reality the opposite occurred as many in the northern states refused to accept the decision and protested even harder against the expansion of slavery.
Against this backdrop, a relatively unheralded prairie lawyer named Abraham Lincoln decided to run for the US Senate in 1858 in his home state of Illinois. Lincoln challenged the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas, to a series of debates located around Illinois to help raise his profile.
When Douglas surprisingly accepted, the resulting Lincoln-Douglas debates became one of the first national media events that served to captivate the nation. While the debates were local in nature, their content was transcribed and delivered across the United States.
It can certainly be said that Lincoln and Douglas were not just speaking to large crowds in Illinois but also to the entire nation.
While Stephen Douglas eventually won the Senatorial campaign, it can be argued that the true winner of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 was Lincoln himself, as his performance catapulted him to the Presidency just two years later.
Politics of the 1850s
By the 1850s the issue of slavery had firmly divided the nation. In many cases it was the primary issue that citizens discussed and voted on.
Northerners began to question the morality behind slavery and pushed to limit its spread in the western territories. Men such as William Lloyd Garrison are credited with influencing northerners to end their casual ignorance of the “peculiar institution.”1
Meanwhile southerners felt their way of life would be threatened should slavery be abolished or limited. Without further expansion, southern states would be outnumbered in the US Senate and House of Representatives.
The famous Missouri Compromise of 1820 helped to briefly settle the issue of what was to happen with slavery in the west by establishing that slavery would be prohitbed above the 36° 30’ latitude line.
However, in the 1840s the annexation of Texas and Mexican Cession added significant territory to the United States. Once again the expansion of slavery was at the center of discussion.
The much disputed Compromise of 1850 was significant in that it overrode the Missouri Compromise and introduced the concept of popular sovereignty in the territories. This meant that the citizens of each territory could decide for themselves whether or not slavery would be allowed in its borders, regardless of where on the map it lay.1
When the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act put this to the test, chaos ensued. It began a series of violent confrontations known as “Bleeding Kansas” where settlers like John Brown vied for control over whether Kansas would become a free or slave state.
Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas was a prominent supporter of popular sovereignty and played a major role in the passage of both the Compromise of 1850 and Kansas-Nebraska Act.
When Douglas was up for reelection in 1858, the newly-created Republican party chose Abraham Lincoln to oppose him.
What were the Lincoln Douglas Debates?
Lincoln was an interesting choice for Republicans intent on taking down Douglas. Aside from one relatively unremarkable term in the House of Representatives a decade prior, Lincoln was relatively unknown.
Many believe his nomination was the result of the Republican party repaying a “debt” from Lincoln dropping out of the 1854 Senatorial election and throwing his key support behind eventual winner Lyman Trumbull.
Douglas, in comparison, was a Goliath-like figure in the Democratic party. He drew significant support across the state and nation and was already considered a front-runner in the upcoming 1860 presidential election.
In order to raise his profile, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of over fifty debates across the state to speak directly to voters. Douglas countered with seven, one in each of the remaining congressional districts they had not already spoken in.2
The challenge was surprising. While Lincoln is now well-known as a skilled orator, Douglas was perhaps the greatest orator of the day with no man considered his equal.1
Another headwind for Lincoln was that his positions left him prone to attack from both sides of the political spectrum.
Abolitionists thought his stance on slavery was too soft and he was not sincere, while Democrats were able to simultaneously paint him as an ardent anti-slavery pundit who would stop at nothing until all slaves were freed and the equal of white men.3
This is not to say that Douglas did not face challenges himself. Already at this time he faced significant pressure from southern Democrats that opposed his support of popular sovereignty in the western territories and his refusal to admit Kansas into the Union as a slave state under the disputed Lecompton Constitution.
With these issues in the background, the two men began a taxing schedule of seven high-profile debates spread across two months from August through October.
Who Won the Lincoln Douglas Debates?
The format of the debates was drastically different than what modern audiences are used to.
The first speaker was given one hour to speak. The second speaker was then given one and a half hours in response. Finally, the first speaker was given another half hour to finish the debate.
As Douglas was the incumbent, he was the first speaker in four of the seven debates. While the debates focused of a variety of issues at the time, slavery was the primary topic.
In the first couple debates, Lincoln looked severely outmatched. Douglas’ oratorical prowess kept Lincoln on the defensive and unable to effectively counter.
However, at the second debate in the town of Freeport, Lincoln set a trap for Douglas and forced him to answer the critical question of popular sovereignty in the territories.
Douglas took the bait and issued what is now referred to as the Freeport Doctrine. He stated that people have the lawful means to exclude slavery in the territories should they wish to, despite this doctrine being expressly opposite the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case.1
After his shaky start, Lincoln soon turned in much stronger performances, matching if not besting Douglas with his charismatic rhetoric. He effectively appealed against the morality of slavery, thereby rising above the typical political conjecture of the time.
The question of who won the Lincoln-Douglas debates is generally answered not in terms of who won the 1858 Illinois Senate race, but what the debates meant for the political careers for the two men.
Despite the strong debate performance by Lincoln, Douglas won reelection to the Senate in 1858. The race was extremely close and closer than most thought it would be.
At the time, Senators in Illinois were elected by the state legislature. As Democrats controlled the legislature 54 to 46, they easily reelected Douglas over Lincoln. This came despite Lincoln winning the popular vote in the state by nearly 4,000 votes.
This discrepancy has led many to claim the state was gerrymandered against Republicans. Upon critical review, these claims do not hold particularly well, given the districts were created just six years earlier when the Republican party did not even exist yet.
In addition the same legislature elected Lyman Turnbull, a Republican, to the Senate just four years prior.
The Significance of the Lincoln Douglas Debates
The Lincoln-Douglas debates had great significance in the inevitable march towards the Civil War. The debates were broadcasted around the nation and the heightened focus on slavery and its morality struck a chord in the north.
In the aftermath of the debates Abraham Lincoln compiled the texts of the debates from two partisan Illinois newspapers and reprinted them in 1860. This reprinted document was essential in helping Lincoln win the presidency in 1860.4
In fact, despite technically losing the Lincoln-Douglas debates in that he did not win the Illinois Senate race, Lincoln is largely historically seen as the winner.
Lincoln’s national profile skyrocketed in the wake of the debates, so much so that it is difficult to imagine a Lincoln presidency without them.2
As for Douglas, though he technically won the Lincoln-Douglas debates and was reelected to the Senate, the debates proved to be a metaphorical nail in the coffin.
While Douglas was already on thin ice within the Democratic party over his lack of support for the Lecompton Constitution, the Freeport Doctrine amounted to downright heresy. The south could never trust Douglas again after that and Douglas’ presidential ambitions were dashed.
With the Southern Democrats’ refusal to support Douglas, the Democratic party split in two for the 1860 election. Northern Democrats nominated Douglas on a popular sovereignty platform, while the Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge on a pro-slavery platform.
Many historians state that the only reason Lincoln won the presidency was due to the split Democratic party. However, it is more accurate to describe Lincoln winning in spite of the Democratic split, not because of it.2
Lincoln won simply because he carried all the northern states. Douglas was also arguably more dangerous freed from the burden of the pro-slavery southerners. Without that burden, he could have won a few key northern states, throwing the election to the House of Representatives where Lincoln was not likely to win.
All told, despite losing the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Abraham Lincoln used his newfound national popularity to ascend to the presidency in 1860.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Taylor, Hannis. “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates and Their Application to Present Problems.” The North American Review, vol. 189, no. 639, University of Northern Iowa, 1909, pp. 161–73, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25106292.
2) Fehrenbacher, D. E. “The Historical Significance of the Lincoln – Douglas Debates.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 42, no. 3, Wisconsin Historical Society, 1959, pp. 193–99, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4633412.
3) NORMAN, MATTHEW. “The Other Lincoln-Douglas Debate: The Race Issue in a Comparative Context.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, vol. 31, no. 1, University of Illinois Press, 2010, pp. 1–21, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25701806.
4) Wilson, Douglas L. “The Unfinished Text of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, vol. 15, no. 1, University of Illinois Press, 1994, pp. 70–84, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20148904.