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Drumbeats on the horizon: the first Lincoln-Douglas debate

The newly-formed, anti-slavery Republican Party had nominated Abraham Lincoln for US Senate.

… public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment… makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
~Abraham Lincoln, 21 August 1858

It was August 1858. The Civil War was an ember edged with fat lighter.

Illinois US Sen. Stephen Douglas was standing for re-election in November as a Democrat* (the pro-slavery party). He had created both controversy and a national profile in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. His bill repealed the Missouri Compromise (1820), in which Congress had banned slavery by geography.

Southern senators wanted to repeal that prohibition on slavery. Their substitute, “popular sovereignty,” allowed states to petition to enter the Union as either slave or free.

Political turmoil followed” the bill’s passage (37-14), the US Senate summary reports, drily. “Stephen Douglas had touted his bill as a peaceful settlement of national issues, but what it produced was a prelude to civil war.”

Both Kansas and Nebraska territories were on the “free” side of the Missouri Compromise line until the Douglas legislation. Nebraska was expected to remain a free territory, but Kansas was a toss-up, adjacent to slave-state Missouri.

After President Franklin Pierce’s signature turned the bill into law, “pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers rushed to Kansas.” Their goal: cast the winning vote for slavery (legalize or prohibit) after the law became effective. The result: “Bleeding Kansas.”

On March 30, 1855 hundreds of heavily armed Missourians poured over the border, exploited a loophole as to what constituted “residency” in Kansas and voted in the first territorial election. Not only did they illegally cast their own ballots but these border ruffians also stuffed the ballot box with hundreds of fictious ballots. Consequently, a high majority of pro-slavery men were voted into the territorial legislature. This territorial legislature immediately passed draconian pro-slavery laws, including a law that stipulated the possession of abolitionist literature to be a capital offense. In response, the anti-slavery men formed their own government in Lawrence, Kansas, which the Pierce administration denounced as an illegitimate and outlaw regime. With this split between a pro-slavery government and an anti-slavery government it was only a matter of time before violent clashes broke out.

[Aside: is it any wonder that today’s Republican Party is so fixated on practically non-existent voter fraud? Reflections in mirrors.*]

Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer and one-term US Congressman from Illinois, opposed slavery and the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Lincoln outlined his beliefs and his campaign message as he accepted the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. In that “House Divided” speech, Lincoln addressed the long-simmering acrimony between north and south.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing, or all the other.

Lincoln and Douglas agreed to seven debates between August and October 1858, one in each Congressional District. Douglas had a “powerful” political machine in Illinois; debate was key to forcing Douglas to “share the political spotlight” with Lincoln.

The first debate, on 21 August 1858 in Ottawa, Illinois, drew a reported 12,000 people. They stood (or sat on the ground as there were no seats) for the three-hour debate.**

Reporters used shorthand to record the speeches and travelled with the candidates, changing the nature of political journalism. The telegraph ensured that reporters could send the story “home” for timely appearance in the paper. Extensive coverage “preserved” the opinions that Lincoln and Douglas expressed on the issue of slavery. They shaped the 1860 presidential campaign.

From the Chicago Press and Tribune, “Great Debate Between Lincoln and Douglas at Ottawa. Twelve Thousand Persons Present,” 23 August 1858.

From sunrise to high noon on Saturday, Ottawa was deluged in dust… At eight o’clock the streets and avenues leading from the country were so enveloped with dust that the town resembled a vast smoke house… Mr. Lincoln was … escorted by the procession, over half a mile in length, with military companies and bands of music from the [rail] depot to the public square…

From the Chicago Times, “The Campaign– Douglas Among the People,” 22 August 1858.

At an early hour Ottawa was alive with people. From daylight till three o’clock in the afternoon the crowds came in, by train, by canalboat, and by wagon, carriage, buggy, and on horseback. Morris, Joliet, and all the towns on the railroad, above and below Ottawa, sent up their delegates.

The population of LaSalle County (Ottawa) in 1860 was 48,000.

Douglas attacked Lincoln as a radical and partner with abolitionists like Frederick Douglass.

Lincoln attacked Douglas for his endorsement of the 1857 Dred Scott decision and accused him of trying to “nationalize slavery.

In Dred Scott, the US Supreme Court denied citizenship to all Black people living in the United States, enslaved or free. Chief Justice Roger Taney was a southerner; he wrote the majority opinion, stating that Black people were not United States citizens and thus “had no right to sue in federal court. In addition, he wrote that the Fifth Amendment protected slave owner rights because enslaved workers were their legal property.”

Lincoln opposed that decision, stating at Ottawa:

“… 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. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

These seven debates would “fundamentally alter the national debate over slavery and the rights of Black Americans.”

Lincoln lost to Douglas when the Illinois legislature voted.***

Although Republicans garnered 54 percent of the vote for the state legislators who would pick the senator (the Democrats got 45 percent), the apportionment of that vote among Illinois’s districts handed the final victory to Douglas. Or at least it seemed final. In fact, newspapers across the country that had begun reporting the debates in August in order to cover Douglas ended in November by featuring Lincoln, and Lincoln gained a national reputation that it would have been impossible to acquire in any other way. That, in turn, led to Lincoln’s nomination by the Republicans for president in 1860.

In 1860, Lincoln would defeat Douglas as well as three other men running for president. He would give his life saving the Union.

Lincoln Douglas foot race
Lincoln & Douglas in a presidential footrace]. No. 1, 1860. LOC.


* Lincoln had been a member of the Whig party. In 1854, he came out of self-imposed political retirement in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Anti-slavery Whigs formed the Republican Party. Republican policies of 1854 are better reflected in today’s Democratic Party, however.
** One man would speak for an hour; the other for 90 minutes; then the first speaker had 30 minutes for closing argument. They alternated who would go first. At Ottawa, it was Douglas.
*** Popular election of US Senators would not happen until 1913 when the 17th Amendment was ratified.

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