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THE EXCELSIOR LITERATURE SERIES
Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by
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Debates," in Illinois Historical Library.
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The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
From a Photograph taken in
Stump Speakingâ€” As the American people pushed
their way across the continent from the Atlantic to the
Pacific, the thin edge of advancing civilization was
known as the * 'frontier." It was made up of coura-
geous spirits who subdued the Indians, drove the French
and Spanish from their pathway, slew the wild beasts,
felled the forests, built their log cabins, and planted
their fields. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett belonged
to these hardy people. Cut off from the comforts and
privileges which they had enjoyed before migrating to
"the West," these people resorted to various make-
shifts to supply their needs. They used Indian moc-
casins on their feet, and coonskin caps on their heads.
Lacking newspapers, they learned the issues of the
political campaigns by assembling to hear the candi-
dates who, in turn, mounted the stump of a felled tree
in the streets of the frontier town and from that forum
addressed the voters. A good "stump speaker" could
always attract a crowd, and a wit combat between two
speakers representing opposite parties was a real holi-
day of sport. It is true that the jokes and counter-
strokes were often feeble attempts, and sometimes not
6 THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES
very far removed from vulgarity; but the stronger the
blows the better they were liked, and the more per-
sonal, the more enjoyable they were.
The spirit of democracy was strong in these pioneers
and made them intensely interested in politics. Their
fondness for hearing political speeches, their attend-
ance upon political meetings, their parades, floats,
banners, and bands remained even after the first frontier
stage of progress had passed and the country was well
settled. In Illinois, stump speaking was popular as
late as 1858, although the frontier had passed on into
Kansas and Nebraska, just ready for statehood.
Political Parties â€” The slavery question was always
a festering thorn in the side of the body politic, fre-
quently poulticed by compromises, but manifesting it-
self whenever a new national issue arose. The Aboli-
tionists, headed by William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell
Phillips, and others, opposed all compromises and stood
for the unconditional and immediate emancipation of
the slaves. They were bitterly condemned by both the
Whig and Democrat parties as wild and dangerous re-
formers, who were likely to bring about a dissolution
of the Union through their agitation. Each party
denied any sympathy for or connection with the
The contention of the Abolitionists that slavery was
wrong ethically, made little progress until it became
an economic and political matter through the proposed
statehood for Kansas and Nebraska. The prairies were
not fitted climatically for cotton raising, which made
slaveholding profitable; but if two new States came in
free, as they must do under the Compromise of 1820/
they would add four free Senators and many free Con-
gressmen to the Northern strength, thereby further
curbing the slaveholding power in national affairs.
The demand of the South for an adjustment led, in
1854, to the substitution for the Missouri Compromise
of 1820 of a new remedy (the Kansas-Nebraska meas-
ure) which, by permitting the people of the proposed
states to determine whether they would be free or
slave, was thought to be the very essence of democ-
racy or home rule. As usual, in temporizing with the
evil the remedy became worse than the disease.
The Republican Party â€” This setting aside of the
Missouri Compromise for * 'squatter sovereignty'*
banded together Northern Whigs and Northern Demo-
crats on an anti-slavery platform; and they speedily
formed a new party, calling themselves Republicans.
In 1856 the new party had a candidate for the presi-
dency, Fremont, and parties were now known politi-
cally as Democrats, Old Line Whigs, and Republicans.
The first two refused to recognize the Republican
movement as more than a conspiracy or corrupt bargain
between leaders to break up the old parties and bring
themselves into political power. In the debates it will
be noticed that Douglas assails the corrupt bargain be-
tween Lincoln, an Old Line Whig, and Trumbull, a
Democrat, both of whom deserted the old parties to
join the new Republican party.
1. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 provided that Missouri should come into
the Union as a slave State, but that thereafter in the territory acquired by
the Louisiana Purchase, slavery should be forever prohibited north of lati-
tude 36Â° 30', which was the line of the southern boundary of Missouri.
8 THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES
The Little Giant â€” Stephen A. Douglas, a Senator
from Illinois and a Northern Democrat, was chairman
of the Senate Committee on Territories. As such he
pushed the Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854 through both
Houses, and incurred the criticism of the free soil ad-
vocates of both parties in the North. He said later that
he could have traveled from Washington to his home
in Chicago, when Congress adjourned, by the light
of himself being burned in effigy. For three hours in
his home town he tried in vain to get his constituents
to listen to his explanations.
Douglas was born in Vermont, migrated to Illinois,
and had advanced rapidly through the offices of pros-
ecuting attorney. State legislator. Registrar of Public
Lands, candidate for Congress, State Supreme Court
Judge, Congressman for two terms, and linally, in 1845,
member of the United States Senate. He had served
two terms in the Senate, and in 1858 was a candidate
for a third election by the State legislature. He had
a most winning personality, a fearless spirit, a quick
temper, and an unlimited energy of physical force and
will power. He was short and heavy in figure, but
possessed a far-reaching voice, and early acquired the
nickname of *The Little Giant." In stump speaking
he was considered the champion of the Middle West.
Honest Old Abe â€” Among those who watched with
interest the course of The Little Giant was Abraham
Lincoln, a member of the Whig party, who wrote to a
friend in 1854 that Douglas's action miglit have created
an opening for a Whig Senator from Illinois, and **if
so, I want the chance of being that man;" but it v;as
thought best to nominate Lyman Trumbull. Four
years later Lincoln had the opportunity.
Lincoln started even lower in life than Douglas, and
progressed more slowly. He lacked Douglas's personal
magnetism and suffered still more by comparison of
appearance. He was tall, ungainly, and careless in his
dress. He was also hampered all his life by poverty.
On the other hand, he possessed more natural shrewd-
ness than Douglas, and always kept his temper, even
under the flings of Douglas. His habits of life were
extremely temperate and formed a marked contrast to
other men in public life at that time.
Lincoln and Douglas knew each other at the State
Capital, and in the Courts where both practiced law.
Lincoln had taken little part in politics except to serve
a term in Congress, 1847-9. He was a candidate for
the Senate in 1854, as has been said, but withdrew in fa-
vor of Trumbull. Small wonder that many thought him
presumptuous in aspiring to the United States Senate
in 1858, and especially when that meant to oppose the
great Douglas. The task seemed doubly hard because
Lincoln was the candidate of a new party, the Republi-
can or *' Black Republican," as the Democrats dubbed
it because of its espousal of the rights of the negro.
Political Conditions â€” It was customary at that time
to hold nominating conventions some months before
elections. The State Legislatures elected the United
States Senators, and so the choice of members of the
Legislature in senatorial election years was a matter of
vital importance. Illinois had always been Democratic,
and Douglas felt no apprehension in the senatorial
10 THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES
election of 1857 except so far as the Kansas-Nebraska
turmoil should disturb normal conditions. Late in 1857
some of the residents of the Territory of Kansas had
formed, at Lecompton, a pro-slavery constitution for
the proposed State. President Buchanan favored the
adoption of the "Lecompton Constitution," but Doug-
las opposed it on the ground that it was not a fair test
of the theory of "squatter sovereignty;" all the people
of the Territory had not taken part. The Democratic
party in Illinois was therefore in a divided condition,
and there might besomeshiftingto the new Republican
party if it came out with a strong Free-Soil platform.
The fears of the Democratic party leaders were realized,
April 21, 1858, when the Democratic State Committee
met at Springfield and nominated Douglas on an anti-
Lecompton platform, which caused a number of the dele-
gates to "bolt" the convention, and, six weeks later,
to hold another convention and nominate another ticket.
Consequently, it was with high hopes that the new
Republican party met in convention at Springfield in
June, and resolved that Abraham Lincoln was the first
and only choice of the Republicans of Illinois for the
United States Senate as the successor of Stephen A.
Douglas. The speech which Lincoln had prepared for
the convention he read from manuscript, a thing which
he rarely did, and he also carefully read the proof in
the printing ofRce before the speech was published.
He was stating the principles of the new party and, as
it chanced, of a new era in American politics. Douglas
would make every use of the platform, and Lincoln must
be careful to see that it was so plain that its statements
co^ld not be twisted or misconstrued bythe wily debater.
^ The two strong factors in the campaign were the sit-
uation in the Kansas-Nebraska territory, and a recent
decision by the Supreme Court of the United States.
This held in the case of Dred Scott/ a fugitive slave, that
no negro slave or his descendant can ever be a citizen of
a State, that neither Congress nor a State Legislature
can exclude slavery from a State or Territory, and that
the decision whether a slave can be held in a free State
depends upon the. courts of that State. Douglas saw
how inconsistent this decision was with his squatter sov-
ereignty theory, and was driven to say that he * 'cared
not whether slavery was voted up or voted down," pro-
vided the people had a fair vote on the question. Lin-
coln in his speech at the Republican nominating con-
vention seized the opportunity to point out where the
development of events had put Douglas. * *His friends, ' '
he said, "remind us that he is a great man and that
the largest of us are very small ones. Let this be
granted. But *a living dog is better than a dead lion.'
Judge Douglas, if not a dead lion, for this work is at
least a caged and toothless one."
In opening the speech, Lincoln used a paraphrase of
Mark 3:25 which was prophetic and destined to be-
come immortal, although Douglas later declared it se-
ditious. Lincoln said:
**A/r. President and Gentlemen of the Convention:
If we could know where we are, and whither we are
tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to
1. Dred Scott was a slave in Missouri, a slave State ; his owner took him in
1834 to Illinois, a free State ; then, in 1834, to Minnesota, a free Territory.
Later his owner took him back to Missouri, when he sued for his freedom, on
the ground that he had resided, for a while at least, on free soil. His owner
claimed that having been born of slave parentage and never having been set
free, he was still a slave, notwithstanding his places of temporary residence.
In 1857 the Supreme Court of the United States decided in favor of the owner.
12 THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES
do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a pol-
icy was initiated with the avowed object and confident
, promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Un-
t^ der the operation of that policy, that agitation has not
I only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my
) opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been
i reached and passed. *A house divided against itself
) cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot en-
dure permanently half slave and half free. I do not
, expect the Union to be dissolved; I' do not expect the
; house to fall; butldo expect it will cease to be di-
* vi ded. ^ It will be come all one thing or all the other.
Either' the opponents~of slavery will arrest the further
spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall
rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate
extinction, 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."
Such was the condition of affairs at the opening of
the campaign between Douglas and Lincoln for the
senatorship of Illinois in 1858.
The Challenge â€” Douglas at once gave out a list of
his speaking appointments for July, and closing on
August 21 at Ottawa. The Republicans also prepared
a list of Republican meetings at which Lincoln was
scheduled to speak, in some cases coinciding with the
Democratic dates and in others following a day later.
At the meetings the crowd sometimes called upon Lin-
coln to reply to Douglas and the Democratic papers
complained that Lincoln was showing bad taste in fol-
lowing Douglas about and taking advantage of his large
audiences. Douglas devoted a larger part of his time
to Trumbull, his co-senator from Illinois, whom he ac-
cused of making a compact with Lincoln to dissolve
both the old Whig and old Democratic parties and
to unite with the Abolitionists in forming the new
* 'Black" Republican party. Trumbull, in turn, charged
Douglas with making a corrupt bargain in favoring
the repeal of the Missouri Compromise measure.
It appeared as if the campaign would resolve itself
into a contest between Douglas and Trumbull, while
Lincoln, who was the actual candidate for Douglas's
place, would be lost sight of. Consequently, after con-
sulting his friends, Lincoln wrote to Douglas, July 24,
1858, inquiring whether it would be agreeable **to di-
vide time and address the same audiences in the pres-
ent canvass." Douglas replied the same day that his
schedule had been made out, that the Democratic can-
didates for other offices on the State ticket must be
given a hearing at his meetings; but that he would
arrange seven extra meetings at which he would dis-
cuss the issues of the day with Lincoln. He further
named the places, one in each of the seven Congres-
sional districts of the State, omitting the Springfield
and Chicago districts, in which both had already spoken
through Lincoln's '*follow-up" method.
Lincoln accepted the seven places and the following
letters closed the arrangements:
Bement, Piatt Co., 111., July 30, 1858
Dear Sir: â€”
Your letter dated yesterday, accepting my proposition
for a joint discussion at one prominent point in each Con-
gressional District, as stated in my previous letter, was
received this morning.
The times and places designated are as follows:
Ottawa, LaSalle County - - - August 21, 1858.
Freeport, Stephenson County - - " 27, "
14 THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES
Jonesboro, Union County - - September 15,
Charleston, Coles County - - " 18,
Galesburg, Knox County - - - October 7,
Quincy, Adams County " 13,
Alton, Madison County " 15,
I agree to your suggestion that we shall alternately
open and close the discussion. I will speak at Ottawa for
one hour, you can reply, occupying an hour and a half, and
I will then follow for half an hour. At Freeport you shall
open the discussion and speak for one hour. We will alter-
nate in like manner in each successive place.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
S. A. Douglas
Hon. A. Lincoln, Springfield, 111.
Springfield, July 31, 1858.
Hon. S. A. Douglas.
Yours of yesterday, naming places, times, and terms,
for joint discussions between us, was received this morning.
Although, by the terms, as you propose, you take /oi(r open-
ings and closings, to my three, I accede, and thus close the
arrangement. I direct this to you at Hillsboro and shall
try to have both your letter and this appear in the Journal
and Register of Monday morning.
Your obedient servant,
The newspapers of the State approved of this ar-
rangement to *'let the people judge for themselves who
shall be their choice after a fair hearing of them both
in person'' and to "submit the whole case to such pop-
ular jurors, called together by the joint efforts of the
two parties." The Douglas papers made flings at the
egotism and the presumption of the upstart to try to
thrust himself upon the public by using the crowds
which would come to hear The Little Giant.
The Course of the Debates â€” The series began
August 21 and closed October 15, covering a period of
nearly eight weeks. Douglas began immediately an
attack on the new Republican party, of which his op-
ponent was one of the founders, and claimed that a bar-
gain had been made between his former fellow Demo-
crat, Judge Trumbull, and Abraham Lincoln, to unite
with the Abolitionists in a sectional revolt against slav-
ery; a course which would endanger the Union. He
used Lincoln's "house divided against itself" as proof
of this disloyalty. Lincoln denied the charge of Abo-
litionism and stated in simple language his opinion of
the rights of the negro; and then opened up the record
of Douglas on the territorial extension of slavery and
the Dred Scott case.
It was customary for a debater to ask his opponent
a series of questions intended to compromise him or to
put him in an embarrassing position. Douglas did this
in the very first debate, hoping to set a trap for Lin-
coln; but in the second debate Lincoln answered these
questions and then countered with four sequential
questions which some historians think caught Douglas
in his own trap.
This second (Freeport) debate is considered the most
important of the series. The second question of Lin-
coln, as to the right of a people of a Territory to ex-
clude slavery before becoming a State, made Douglas
reaffirm what he had said **a hundred times from every
stump in Illinois." He had to choose between an
affirmative answer, which would please Northern Dem-
ocrats and gain him the Senatorship, but bar all hopes
of the presidency through alienating the South; or re-
16 THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES
turning a negative answer, which would cost him his
Northern favor and the Senatorship. Also, an affirma-
tive reply would be wholly at variance with the Dred
Scott decision. Neverthless he answered affirmatively.
It is Gaid that Lincoln saw the result of the affirma-
tive reply which Douglas would probably give and
which would cost Lincoln the senatorship, but that he
looked forward to the presidential election of 1860, and
in his homely vernacular said, **I am after larger
game." Admirers of Douglas doubt this story, and
deny that Lincoln drove Douglas into a corner, because
Douglas had on several prior occasions declared that
the people of a Territory can, by lawful means, exclude
slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a
In the next debate Douglas reiterated his "bargain"
claim, and expressed his unconcern whether slavery was
* 'voted up or voted down" in a Territorial legislature.
This involved the idea that matters should go on as
they had been, but Lincoln showed that Douglas by his
own action had made this impossible. Lincoln also ex-
ploded Douglas' theory of squatter sovereignty by say-
ing that it simply amounted to this: "That if any one
man choose to enslave another, no third man shall be
allowed to object." The compact with Trumbull and
many items of local Illinois politics were frequently
tossed back and forth between the two. These are
omitted from this volume because they had no bearing
on the national situation.
At Jonesboro, Douglas took a fling at negroes ming-
ling with whites, and insinuated that Lincoln and the
Republicans were in favor of the equality of the two
races. To this Lincoln said tlie final word at Charleston
in regard to the possibility of a white man marrying
a colored woman.
There were several passages at arms between the de-
baters, and some crude banter which would scarcely be
considered in good taste at present. The least justifi-
able was D.ouglas reviving the old falsehood that while
in Congress in 1847 Lincoln had voted against sending
supplies to our troops fighting in Mexico. Lincoln
was manifestly aroused to anger, as his reply shows.
But he was even more angered when Douglas poked
fun at him about his powers of physical endurance,
suggesting that Lincoln was so exhausted at Ottawa
that he had to be carried from the platform, when in
truth he had been carried away, despite his protests,
on the shoulders of his enthusiastic followers.