In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephan Douglas engaged in seven debates in a race for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. Although Douglas was regarded as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1860, he struggled in this contest because of the growing sectional crisis and due to his own role in passing the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln, on the other hand, was a relative newcomer to national politics, having only served a single term in the US House of Representatives during the previous decade.
The two candidates traveled nearly 10,000 miles (mainly by railroad) over four months crisscrossing the state. In their face-to-face encounters, Douglas attacked Lincoln as a dangerous radical who would impose his moral sentiments upon the slave-holding South. The ultimate result, Douglas predicted, would be the dissolution of the Union. Douglas also attacked Lincoln along racist lines. The Republican candidate, he said, was a man determined to make the black race equal to the white race.
Lincoln tried to deflect Douglas’s attacks by admitting that the federal government had no constitutional right to interfere with slavery in states where it already existed. Moreover, he rejected the belief that African Americans were politically and socially the equal of whites. But Lincoln did insist that, like whites, blacks possessed “all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In particular, African Americans were morally entitled to enjoy the fruits of their own labor.
The election in Illinois proved exceedingly close. The Republicans, however, did not win enough seats in the state legislature to send Lincoln to the Senate. Even though Lincoln lost the contest, his debates and speeches gained him national attention. This prominence helped Lincoln to secure the Republican presidential nomination two years later.
Questions to pose in a lecture and/or class discussion on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates:
1. Why was Stephen Douglas’s seat in the Senate vulnerable in 1858?
2. What principles about slavery and equality did Lincoln articulate during the debates? And how did these principles later influence Lincoln’s policies during the Civil War?
3. Were Douglas’s attacks upon Lincoln unfair? Were any of them accurate and on-target?
4. Even though he ended up losing this election, why do many historians regard Lincoln as the winner of this campaign?