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Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Last Updated: 2006

During the summer and fall of 1858 as they contested for a Senate seat across Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas conducted a series of seven joint debates on the most momentous of issues dividing the nation at the time, the moral, legal, and political status of slavery. Their contest began in Ottawa on August 21 and concluded on October 15 in Alton, at every town drawing large crowds who listened for three hours to speeches and rebuttals complicated in their reasoning, formidable in their marshaling of facts, and often remarkably sophisticated in the diction both speakers employed to address largely rural audiences. At the end of the campaigning Lincoln would poll slightly more votes in the election of members of the legislature, but the Democrat Douglas would win the Senate seat by carrying the majority of those legislators. The lasting importance of these debates lies in their having stated with uncommon force and clarity opposing views of the legitimacy of slavery with respect to fundamental principles of justice as well as by reference to American constitutionalism. The contest would set the terms upon which public opinion outside the southern states would first divide, then ultimately coalesce, in support of the position advocated by Lincoln and his Republican Party.

The immediate question disputed by the two statesmen was what should be public policy regarding slaveholding in the new U.S. territories carved from western lands obtained in the Louisiana Purchase. Two recent developments had contributed to make the issue urgent and volatile. First, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had broken with the compromise, dating back to 1820 whereby slavery was prohibited in territories north of the latitude 36′ 30″, allowing instead determination to be made by the settlers of the territory at the time of its formation into a state. The consequence of this legislation was resort to extensive force and fraud in the voting contests, culminating in armed conflicts that gave rise to the phrase “Bleeding Kansas.” The second fateful event was the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), a judgment upholding the claims of slaveholders that they should be permitted to bring their slaves into any territory and hold them whatever the determination of the people of that territory. This meant that nothing in law could now prevent the extension of slavery to western lands.

Both Lincoln and Douglas sought to preserve the Union by consolidating public opinion in favor of proposals calculated to calm national agitation over slavery. But they advocated measures that were opposed and incompatible. Douglas argued for what he termed “popular sovereignty,” holding that each territory, wherever it might be, should be left at liberty to adopt a constitution that would provide either for free soil or slavery as the voters of the territory should decide. Douglas refused to be drawn into the issue of the moral justification of the institution itself. In opposition, Lincoln insisted upon establishing the immorality of slavery from the outset and sought to preserve union by permitting slavery to continue in states where currently it was legal while prohibiting its extension to the territories. He made clear his conviction that by so confining the slaveholding power, slavery would thereby be put on a course to its ultimate extinction as free states over time would come to dominate Congress and slaves in the South would decline in value as the result of a restricted market.

Both candidates could appeal to the& U.S. Constitution in support of their positions. Against Lincoln’s argument for equality of rights, Douglas could point to constitutional provisions favoring slaveholders. Clauses in the 1787 Constitution regarding representation and taxation (a slave counted in the U.S. Census as three-fifths of a person), stipulating the return of fugitive slaves, and permitting for a certain period a foreign trade in slaves all could be cited as grounds for countenancing slaveholding. Lincoln could maintain that the Constitution in those same clauses placed upon slavery “marks of disapprobation” indicating accommodation by necessity but opposition in principle. Both men felt themselves compelled to appeal beyond the letter of the Constitution to principles they supposed to animate that legal document.

Since for Douglas the principle of popular sovereignty was paramount, he considered all issues must be referred to the judgment of the people, and for him the people in the present dispute over slavery were the inhabitants of the several territories. Douglas denied that he supported slavery as such but proclaimed his indifference to whether the practice was voted up or down so long as the local majority was permitted to decide. This was the position in which he sought refuge whenever Lincoln pressed on the moral issue. At the same time Douglas attempted to discredit his opponent by identifying Lincoln’s opposition to slavery with advocacy of racial equality in every respect, a position that, had any candidate at this period adopted it, would have meant political annihilation. Lincoln denied that opposition to slavery required embracing egalitarianism in any respect other than the acknowledgment of rights possessed in common by Negroes and all other Americans. He looked to the equality and inalienable rights propositions of the Declaration of Independence as the most authoritative of national standards of justice, and appealing to the Declaration pronounced slavery to be in violation of both morality and the nation’s dedication to a higher law. Lincoln attempted to compel Douglas to acknowledge that his position of neutrality was itself immoral on the grounds that Douglas’s version of popular sovereignty amounted to nothing other than permitting injustice. By analyzing the several items of legislation that had undermined the Missouri Compromise as well as the Court’s decision in Dred Scott, Lincoln also tried to make Douglas admit that unless the present course were reversed, the country would face the prospect of extending legal sanction of slavery to all parts of the land, with or without that local approval in which Douglas vested his hope.

The debates continually reverted to political first principles because both antagonists could rightly claim their arguments were grounded in the fundamental allegiances of the American polity. Americans had dedicated themselves to securing rights founded in the equality of human beings. They had also espoused the principle that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. Douglas maintained the priority of consent, whereas Lincoln maintained the priority of the goal of securing equality of rights. For Douglas, securing rights had to be limited by considerations of what could enlist consent. For Lincoln, the moral end of securing rights obligated one to consent solely to what could be morally justified by conforming to, or at least not opposing, that end. Enlisting consent he considered indispensable for prudential reasons, yet not definitive of right and wrong. The Civil War would transfer this debate to battlefields, and the constitutional amendments enacted by the victors would alter the terms upon which rights would be determined and secured. Over the subsequent 100 years, Court interpretations of these amendments would then determine the manner in which consent would be ascertained and accorded authority, or disregarded, in consideration of majorities supposed to be distributed nationally, or only statewide, or only locally. The debate that in 1858 concerned U.S. territories would after 1865 concern the states and join with other issues affecting federalism and arising from progressive centralization of all functions of government.

SEE ALSO: Civil WarDeclaration of IndependenceKansas-Nebraska Act of 1854Lincoln, AbrahamLouisiana PurchaseMissouri Compromise of 1820Morality PolicySlaverySovereigntyThree-Fifths CompromiseU.S. ConstitutionU.S. Territories


Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959; reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Harry V. Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); and David Zarefsky, Lincoln Douglas and Slavery: In the Crucible of Public Debate (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).