The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858: Summary & Significance

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  • 0:05 Stephen Douglas
  • 1:36 The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
  • 3:49 Debates 1-3
  • 6:39 Debates 4-7
  • 9:56 Significance of the Debates
  • 10:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In an effort to secure their own appointments to the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas squared off in a series of seven debates in 1858. Find out why Douglas might have won in the short term but Lincoln won in the long term.

Stephen Douglas

In the mid-1850s, America was facing a political crisis. Slavery was threatening to tear the nation apart, and what's worse, the Great Triumvirate - Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun - who had brokered peace and compromise for decades, were all gone. It was time for a new generation of leaders, and the Democrats had a rising star: Senator Stephen A. Douglas, known to his detractors as the 'Little Giant.'

Douglas had worked with Henry Clay to win passage of the controversial Compromise of 1850, infamous for its fugitive slave law. But more importantly, Douglas had persuaded Americans to accept the idea of popular sovereignty, meaning new states would decide for themselves whether to accept or ban slavery. It all sounded so democratic, until it came time to put that theory into practice in Kansas. And as you've learned, the whole process was wracked with fraud and violence. Douglas's presidential aspirations were dashed, in both 1852 and 1856. Then came a terrible blow to the doctrine of popular sovereignty: the Dred Scott decision. Douglas threw himself into his campaign for re-election to the Senate. Thankfully for him (or so he thought), he was being opposed by the virtually unknown Republican, Abraham Lincoln.

Stephen Douglas ran against Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois Senate.
Race for Senate

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

You might remember that at this time in U.S. history, Senators were chosen by state legislatures. So, Douglas couldn't exactly campaign for himself. But since 1858 was an election year for the Illinois State House, Douglas decided to enhance his own chances of being chosen by campaigning for Democratic legislators. If Democrats held the majority of seats in Illinois, they would choose him as their Senator. So, with the help of a friend who ran the railroad, Douglas traveled the state giving speeches. But wherever he went, the annoying Republican candidate would show up two days later, give voters reasons not to trust Douglas and get the last word in. Finally, Douglas agreed to meet Abraham Lincoln face to face in a series of debates in the remaining Congressional districts in the state.

There were seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which the two candidates for Senate squared off against each other, challenging the other's ideas about many topics - but most importantly, slavery and its future in the United States. Even though these speeches were intended to help elect their respective parties' state legislators, the events attracted tens of thousands of people. The audience turned the debates into a sporting event, shouting out questions, cheering, booing and laughing. Reporters in Chicago transcribed the speeches, and thanks to the telegraph, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were reported by newspapers across the entire nation and followed closely by the American people.

Before the first debate even took place, Abraham Lincoln addressed a crowd in Chicago, known famously as the House Divided Speech. In it, Lincoln attacked the doctrine of popular sovereignty, saying that it had clearly failed in its goal of ending conflict over slavery. Then, he went on to quote the Bible, saying:

''A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free...Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it...or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new - North as well as South.''

In his famous House Divided Speech, Lincoln attacked the doctrine of popular sovereignty.
House Divided Speech

Debates 1-3

As many as 12,000 people showed up in Ottawa to watch the first debate.

Douglas: You, sir, are a radical abolitionist who wants to turn Illinois into a colony for free blacks!

Lincoln: No, I'm not! You want to expand slavery across the entire nation!

An even bigger crowd came out to watch the second debate. Lincoln spoke first, mostly answering some direct questions that Douglas had asked him at the previous debate. Then, he posed four of his own questions, largely ridiculing Douglas for his continued support for the doctrine of popular sovereignty. In response, Douglas articulated what has become known as the Freeport Doctrine. Basically, Douglas argued that if the citizens of a state or territory didn't want slavery, it didn't really matter what the Supreme Court said. All they had to do was elect a legislature that wouldn't pass any laws that would enforce or protect it. The Freeport Doctrine was supposed to be a simple means around the Dred Scott decision. But, this idea came back to bite Douglas in the presidential election two years later because Southern Democrats felt he had betrayed them.

A crowd of just 1,500 people, most of whom had relocated from slave states, showed up to the third debate to cheer on Douglas and jeer at Lincoln.

Douglas: You say the country cannot exist half slave and half free? Well, it seems to me that the Founding Fathers designed it that way, and that the country has not only survived in this condition, but has grown. When you say that we have to be all slave or all free, why, them's fightin' words!

Then, Douglas played to his crowd's racist beliefs:

''I hold that a negro is not and never ought to be a citizen of the United States. I hold that this government was made on the white basis, by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men and none others...At that time, every one of the 13 colonies was a slaveholding colony, every signer of the Declaration of Independence represented a slaveholding constituency and we know that not one of them emancipated his slaves, much less offered citizenship to them when they signed the Declaration...My friends, I am in favor of preserving this government as our fathers made it.''

Lincoln: When the Declaration of Independence was signed, everyone thought slavery was dying. Remember the Northwest Ordinance? The Founding Fathers didn't let slavery into new territories! We should go back to that model, and just let it die out on its own.

Debates 4-7

Another 12,000 spectators showed up to watch as Lincoln spoke first in the fourth debate, firmly repudiating Douglas' charge that he believed in racial equality. It might surprise you to hear Lincoln's words:

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