Past and Present: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 150 Years Later

At stake was a U.S. Senate seat—but also the definition of democracy and the future of the country.

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On the dry, sun-baked afternoon of Aug. 21, 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas stepped onto a hastily constructed platform in the main square of the Illinois River town of Ottawa and began a series of seven one-on-one debates that bored a smoldering hole straight into the heart of American politics. Both men were candidates for the U.S. Senate, and both were veterans of the conventional give-and-take of politics. But these debates would carry Lincoln and Douglas far above the conventional. They would focus on an issue that promised a whirlwind of catastrophe for America, and they would end with two irreconcilable visions of democracy itself—visions that still divide us today.

In 1858, Douglas was the most powerful politician in the Democratic Party and maybe, for that matter, in the nation. Eight years before, he had won national applause for cobbling together a plan, based on the doctrine of "popular sovereignty," to resolve the vexing issue of legalized slavery in America. Congress had been paralyzed for years by the demands of southern slaveholders to open the unsettled territories of the American West to slave labor and the counterdemands of the free states of the North that the western territories be reserved for development only by free labor. "Popular sovereignty" would allow the people who actually lived in the territories to make their own decisions about legalizing slavery—and let Congress get back to other business. Riding on the wings of popular sovereignty, the way seemed open for Douglas to capture the Democratic presidential nomination, and the presidency itself, in 1860.

Abraham Lincoln, by contrast, was a chronic political also-ran. What was worse, he was the nominee of a new party, the Republicans, who lacked both visibility and cash. But what the Republicans lacked on those points, they made up in their ferocious opposition to the spread of slavery. Lincoln, in particular, had "always hated slavery," as he had said in a speech the previous month. Slavery was the business of human bondage, and it flew straight into the face of the most sacred of American beliefs, "that all men are created equal" and are endowed with a natural right to liberty. No amount of popular sovereignty, even in a democracy, could repeal that. And instead of dissolving the contention over slavery, Lincoln pointed out that popular sovereignty only transferred the contention to the territories, as proslavery and antislavery settlers turned murderous in their struggle for control, as had happened in Kansas.

Lincoln had not planned to challenge Douglas to a debate. But up against Douglas's powerful Illinois political machine, public debate was the only way Douglas could be forced to share the political spotlight. Confident of his own considerable oratorical powers, Douglas accepted the challenge, and when the first debate opened at Ottawa on August 21, Douglas bombarded Lincoln with an aggressive flurry of accusations. Lincoln is a radical abolitionist, Lincoln advocates racial equality, Lincoln wants civil war, Douglas charged.

Lincoln backed away defensively before the Douglas onslaught. But at the second debate, at Freeport on August 27, Lincoln came armed with accusations of his own, particularly about the illusory promise that "popular sovereignty" would guarantee peace. Over the next two debates, at Jonesboro and Charleston, Lincoln and Douglas traded even shots over slavery and popular sovereignty. But by the time of the fifth debate, at Galesburg on October 7, Douglas's stamina was beginning to crack noticeably. In the final two debates, at Quincy and Alton on October 13 and 15, Lincoln seized the high ground by denouncing slavery as a moral wrong and a tyranny indistinguishable from the divine right of kings. In his natural right "to eat the bread which he has earned by the sweat of his brow," Lincoln declared, every black slave should be "my equal, Judge Douglas's equal, and the equal of every living man."

But on Election Day, it was the Douglas machine that triumphed. 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. And there, facing Douglas again as the Democrats' presidential nominee, it was Lincoln who would gain the prize—and, in the long run, save the country.