On This Day

Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, lincoln douglas debate
NY Public Library Picture Collection/AP
Abraham Lincoln speaks as Stephen Douglas looks on in during one of their seven debates in
the 1858 campaign for Illinois senatorship.

On This Day: Lincoln and Douglas Hold First Debate

August 21, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Aug. 21, 1858, Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas faced off against challenger Abraham Lincoln in the first of seven historic debates focused on the future of slavery.

Douglas vs. Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, the relatively unknown Republican candidate for one of Illinois’ Senate seats, challenged Democratic incumbent Steven A. Douglas to a series of debates in a July 1858 letter. “Will it be agreeable to you to make an arrangement for you and myself to divide time, and address the same audience during the present canvass?” he asked.

Douglas agreed to the debates. “Never before had an incumbent senator, much less one of Douglas' stature, agreed to debate his challenger in public. (Douglas assumed that his renowned oratorical powers would defeat Lincoln handily.),” explains Fergus M. Bordewich in Smithsonian magazine.

Though intended to address mainly state issues, the debates would take on a national tone as the two candidates discussed the future of slavery in America. Douglas, one of the most influential men in the Senate, favored a solution that would allow popular sovereignty in disputed areas, encouraging each territory or state to decide the future of slavery by itself, while Lincoln argued for a national solution.

Lincoln had stated his position on slavery while accepting the Republican nomination on June 16 in Springfield. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he declared. “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.”

Deciding to meet in seven of the state’s nine voting districts, the candidates agreed to alternate speaking order with each location. One would be allowed to speak for an hour, followed by an hour-and-a-half rebuttal, and then a final 30-minute response.

The first debate was held Aug. 21, 1858, in Ottawa, a town in northern Illinois. Between 10,000 and 12,000 people watched as Douglas accused Lincoln of trying to “abolitionize” the Whig and Democratic parties, while Lincoln responded that Douglas was trying to nationalize slavery.

The ensuing six debates would cover similar ground. Though they touched on issues of trade, expansion and a faltering economy, the debates focused mostly on the issue of slavery.

Reported in papers across the country, with narratives varying wildly according to the allegiances of each publication, the state election became the focus of a wider, national debate.

The 1858 Senate and 1860 Presidential Elections

Douglas would go on to win the election, as the Democrats won control of the state legislature, which selected U.S. senators. But Lincoln’s performance in the campaign launched him onto the national stage, allowing him to run for president just two years later.

“The key question facing him before the debates was: Can he lead a party?” says historian Matthew Pinsker. “Now he has the answer: He can. He now begins to see himself as a possible president.”

In the 1860 presidential election, Lincoln defeated John C. Breckinridge, John Bell and Douglas, who finished second in the popular vote but won just one state.

Biographies: Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in Kentucky. He moved to Indiana and to Illinois, working various odd jobs and educating himself. He became a postmaster in 1833 and began to study law around the same time. He soon won a reputation for being an effective lawyer and debater—one that would only be furthered with Lincoln’s showing in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

“Honest Abe” became the nation’s 16th president in 1861. His term was one of the most tumultuous in the country’s history, seeing the secession of the South, the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. A few weeks after his second inaugural ball, on April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Stephen Douglas
Born in Vermont in 1863, Stephen Douglas was a prominent political figure both in his adopted state of Illinois and across the country. A great admirer of Andrew Jackson and his policies, Douglas favored popular sovereignty when it came to the issue of slavery in new territories, which, at the time, bordered Illinois.

After failing to defeat Lincoln in the presidential election of 1860, Douglas traveled south to argue against the ultimately successful secessionist movement.

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