160th Anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates
On August 21, 1858, two men engaged in a three-hour exchange of words in front of more than 10,000 people in Ottawa, Illinois. The event was the first of seven in towns across the state. At stake was a seat in the U.S. Senate. What was illustrated was the deep division over slavery and the right of states to self-determination. The two men were Abraham Lincoln, at the time a U.S. congressman, and Stephen Douglas, the incumbent senator.
The debates, which followed the format of a 60-minute address, a 90-minute address and a 30-minute rebuttal by the first speaker, focused mainly on the issue of how or whether slavery should be allowed in new territories. The policy of popular sovereignty, the ability of citizens of a prospective state to decide whether to be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state, had been instituted by passage of the Douglas-sponsored Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas had been for years trying to strike a delicate balance of playing to his northern supporters while trying not to upset southerners as he looked ahead to a presidential run in 1860.
In the first few events, Lincoln was on the defensive as Douglas hammered away at him, suggesting that he was an abolitionist who would put blacks on an equal footing with whites--allowing them to hold public office and even marry whites--while reiterating the idea that future states should be able to decide for themselves. But in the fourth debate Lincoln fought back with a statement of belief that while blacks should not be enslaved, they should never have equal status because of their inherent inferiority--a viewpoint dissonant with our saintly view of him. At this point and moving forward, Lincoln began to gather steam, and the idea that Lincoln could defeat Douglas began to set in. The rest of the debates saw Lincoln laying out his argument that slavery was morally wrong while Douglas sputtered physically and oratorically.
After all was said and done, Abraham Lincoln lost the battle, but he won the war. Back then, a state's legislature elected the state's U.S. senators. While Lincoln's Republican Party won the popular vote, the Democrats won more seats in both chambers of the state legislature. His challenge to Douglas had failed, but coverage of the debates raised his national profile for the 1860 presidential election, which he won. Of course, the subject of the debates would weigh heavily on Lincoln's presidency and would play a big part in pushing the country into civil war.
Nothing like them had been done before, but in the end, the Lincoln-Douglas debates had little influence on the way candidates would hash out important issues, as nothing like them have been done since. Campaign debates today show little resemblance to them; it is unthinkable that candidates would debate a single issue for 21 hours. The mythical status of the debates comes from the quality and volume of the discourse, which laid out the competing ideologies concerning slavery and the very nature of the United States, and the fact that the career of one of our greatest presidents was born of them.
eLibrary’s Research Topics are a good place for History and Social Studies students to start their exploration of these debates. Editors select overviews, context, in-depth articles, and primary sources for this and many other events you’ll be teaching throughout the coming year. Here are some sample Research Topics that you can provide to your students with relevant information on the Lincoln-Douglas debates:
Stephen A. Douglas
Compromise of 1850
ProQuest Research Topic Guide: Slavery in the U.S.
Possible discussion points:
-Discuss Lincoln's stated view on blacks' racial inferiority. Does it conflict with his argument against slavery?
-Compare and contrast the arguments for and against ending slavery made by Lincoln and Douglas.
-What was Lincoln's argument against popular sovereignty?
-Compare and contrast the Lincoln-Douglas Debates to campaign rhetoric today.
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