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Lincoln and Douglas Debate

During the 1858 campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate from the state of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas engaged in a series of debates that, in effect, changed the course of the nation’s history.

If there was ever a single-issue candidate for high office, it was Abraham Lincoln. In 1854, slavery, specifically the threatened spread of slavery into the Western territories, dominated his thoughts, and the issue set him afire. His voice took on new urgency, his message greater clarity, and he would entertain no compromise. Lincoln considered Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s concept of “popular sovereignty” — allowing the territories to determine their own policy on slavery — a denial of the responsibility of the Congress to uphold the United States Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln had long regarded slavery as an evil. As early as 1854 in a widely publicized speech, he declared that all national legislation should be framed on the principle that slavery was to be restricted and eventually abolished. He contended also that the principle of popular sovereignty was false, for slavery in the western territories was the concern not only of the local inhabitants but of the United States as a whole.

In 1858 Lincoln opposed Stephen A. Douglas for election to the U.S. Senate from Illinois [at that time, Senators were elected by the State Legislature, not the public]. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a series of formal political debates between the challenger, Abraham Lincoln, and the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas, in a campaign for one of Illinois' two United States Senate seats. Although Lincoln lost the election, these debates launched him into national prominence which eventually led to his election as President of the United States.

Lincoln and Douglas agreed to debate in seven of the nine Illinois Congressional Districts; the seven where Douglas had not already spoken. In each debate either Douglas or Lincoln would open with an hour address. The other would then speak for an hour and a half. The first then had 30 minutes of rebuttal. In the seven debates, Douglas, as the incumbent, was allowed to go first four times.

In the first paragraph of his opening campaign speech, on June 17, Lincoln struck the keynote of American history for the seven years to follow: A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and halffree. 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.

Senator Douglas, known as the “Little Giant,” had an enviable reputation as an orator, but he met his match in Lincoln, who eloquently challenged Douglas’s concept of popular sovereignty. Compelled by conscience to attack both the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its principal author and defender, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln found his true voice. In Peoria, he spoke immediately after Douglas, who was touring Illinois to defend the Kansas-Nebraska Act. From that moment on, abolitionists, Free-Soilers, and members of the new Republican Party began to think of Lincoln as their spokesman. Drafted in 1855 to run for the U.S. Senate, Lincoln began with a majority vote in the legislature in a very complicated contest, but could not reach the necessary number of votes to secure his election.

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Page last modified: 07-09-2017 17:00:26 ZULU