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Composite image from portrait photographs of Abraham Lincoln (1860) and Stephen A. Douglas (1859)

The Lincoln–Douglas debates (also known as The Great Debates of 1858) were a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party candidate for the United States Senate from Illinois, and incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Party candidate. At the time, senators were elected by state legislatures, so Lincoln and Douglas were trying to win control of the Illinois General Assembly for their respective parties. The debates were widely reported on nationally, using the newly-invented telegraph. They previewed the issues that Lincoln later faced after his victory in the 1860 presidential election. Illinois was a free state, and the main issue discussed in all seven debates was slavery in the United States, particularly its future expansion into new territories.

Lincoln and Douglas decided to hold one debate in each of the nine congressional districts in Illinois. Both candidates had already spoken in Springfield and Chicago within a day of each other, so they decided that their joint appearances would be held in the remaining seven districts. The debates in Freeport, Quincy, and Alton drew especially large numbers of people from neighboring states, as the issue of slavery was of monumental importance to citizens throughout the nation.[1][2] Newspaper coverage was intense during the debates. Major papers from Chicago sent stenographers to create complete texts of each debate, which newspapers reprinted in full throughout the country, some with partisan edits. Newspapers that supported Douglas edited his speeches to remove any errors made by the stenographers and to correct grammatical errors, while they left Lincoln's speeches in the rough form in which they had been transcribed. In the same way, pro-Lincoln papers edited Lincoln's speeches, but left the Douglas texts as reported.

Lincoln edited the texts of all the debates and had them published in a book.[3] The widespread coverage of the debates and the popularity of the book helped lead to Lincoln's nomination for president by the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago.

The format for each debate was that one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute rejoinder. The candidates alternated speaking first. As the incumbent, Douglas spoke first in four of the debates.


Douglas was first elected to the United States Senate in 1846, and he was seeking re-election for a third term in 1858. The issue of slavery was raised several times during his tenure in the Senate, particularly with respect to the Compromise of 1850. As chairman of the committee on territories, he argued for an approach to slavery called popular sovereignty: electorates at a local level would vote whether to adopt or reject a state constitution which prohibited slavery. Decisions had been made previously at a federal level concerning whether slavery was permitted or prohibited within certain states and territories. Douglas was successful with passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act in 1854.

Lincoln had also been elected to Congress in 1846, and he served a two-year term in the House of Representatives. During his time in the House, he disagreed with Douglas and supported the Wilmot Proviso which sought to ban slavery in any new territory. He returned to politics in the 1850s to oppose the Kansas–Nebraska Act and to help develop the new Republican party.

Before the debates, Lincoln said that Douglas was encouraging fears of amalgamation of the races, with enough success to drive thousands of people away from the Republican Party.[4] Douglas argued that Lincoln was an abolitionist for saying that the American Declaration of Independence applied to blacks as well as whites. Lincoln called a self-evident truth "the electric cord… that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together" of different ethnic backgrounds.[5]

Lincoln argued in his House Divided Speech that Douglas was part of a conspiracy to nationalize slavery. He said that ending the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in Kansas and Nebraska was the first step in this direction, and that the Dred Scott decision was another step in the direction of spreading slavery into Northern territories. He expressed the fear that the next Dred Scott decision would make Illinois a slave state.[6]

Both Lincoln and Douglas had opposition. Lincoln was a former Whig, and prominent Whig judge Theophilus Lyle Dickey said that he was too closely tied to the abolitionists; he consequently supported Douglas. But Democratic President James Buchanan opposed Douglas for his work to defeat the Lecompton Constitution which would have made Kansas a slave state, and he set up a rival National Democratic party which drew votes away from him.[7]

The debatesEdit

Locations in Illinois where Lincoln and Douglas debated. Green denotes debates between Lincoln and Douglas while purple denotes places where they spoke separately within a day of each other.

The debates were held in seven towns in the state of Illinois:

U.S. Postage, 1958 issue, commemorating the Lincoln and Douglas debates

Slavery was the main theme of the Lincoln–Douglas debates, particularly the issue of slavery's expansion into the territories. Douglas's Kansas–Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise's ban on slavery in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and replaced it with the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which meant that the people of a territory could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. Lincoln said that popular sovereignty would nationalize and perpetuate slavery.[8] Douglas argued that both Whigs and Democrats believed in popular sovereignty and that the Compromise of 1850 was an example of this.[9] Lincoln said that the national policy was to limit the spread of slavery, and he mentioned the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 as an example of this policy, which banned slavery from a large part of the Midwest.[10] During the debates, both Lincoln and Douglas appealed to the "Fathers" (Founding Fathers) to bolster their case.[11][12][13]

The Compromise of 1850 allowed the territories of Utah and New Mexico to decide for or against slavery, but it also allowed the admission of California as a free state, reduced the size of the slave state of Texas by adjusting the boundary, and ended the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in the District of Columbia. In return, the South got a stronger Fugitive Slave Law than the version mentioned in the Constitution.[14] Douglas said that the Compromise of 1850 replaced the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north and west of the state of Missouri, while Lincoln said that this was false[15] and that Popular Sovereignty and the Dred Scott decision were a departure from the policies of the past that would nationalize slavery.[16][17]

There were partisan remarks, such as Douglas' accusations that members of the "Black Republican" party[18] were abolitionists, including Lincoln,[19] and he cited Lincoln's House Divided Speech as proof[20] in which he said, "I believe this government cannot endure permanently half Slave and half Free."[21] Douglas also charged Lincoln with opposing the Dred Scott decision because "it deprives the negro of the rights and privileges of citizenship." Lincoln responded that "the next Dred Scott decision" could allow slavery to spread into free states.[22] Douglas accused Lincoln of wanting to overthrow state laws that excluded blacks from states such as Illinois, which were popular with the northern Democrats. Lincoln did not argue for complete social equality, but he did say that Douglas ignored the basic humanity of blacks and that slaves did have an equal right to liberty.[23]

Lincoln said that he did not know how emancipation should happen. He believed in colonization, but admitted that it was impractical. He said that it would be wrong for emancipated slaves to be treated as "underlings", but that there was a large opposition to social and political equality and that "a universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded."[23] He said that Douglas' public indifference would result in the expansion of slavery because it would mold public sentiment to accept it.[23] He said that Douglas "cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up,"[23] and that he would "blow out the moral lights around us" and eradicate the love of liberty.

At the debate at Freeport,[24] Lincoln forced Douglas to choose between two options, either of which would damage Douglas' popularity and chances of getting reelected. He asked Douglas to reconcile popular sovereignty with the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision. Douglas responded that the people of a territory could keep slavery out even though the Supreme Court said that the federal government had no authority to exclude slavery, simply by refusing to pass a slave code and other legislation needed to protect slavery.[25] Douglas alienated Southerners with this Freeport Doctrine, which damaged his chances of winning the Presidency in 1860. As a result, Southern politicians used their demand for a slave code to drive a wedge between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party,[26] splitting the majority political party in 1858.

Douglas failed to gain support in all sections of the country through popular sovereignty. By allowing slavery where the majority wanted it, he lost the support of Republicans led by Lincoln who thought that Douglas was unprincipled. He lost the support of the South by defeating a pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution and advocating a Freeport Doctrine to stop slavery in Kansas where the majority were anti-slavery. Before the debate at Charleston, Democrats held up a banner that read "Negro equality" with a picture of a white man, a negro woman, and a mulatto child.[27] Frederick Douglass remarked on Lincoln's "entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race."[28] Stephen Douglas said that Lincoln had an ally in Frederick Douglass in preaching "abolition doctrines." He said that Frederick Douglass told "all the friends of negro equality and negro citizenship to rally as one man around Abraham Lincoln." He also charged Lincoln with a lack of consistency when speaking on the issue of racial equality,[29] and cited Lincoln's previous statements that the declaration that all men are created equal applies to blacks as well as whites.

Lincoln said that slavery expansion endangered the Union and mentioned the controversies caused by it in Missouri in 1820, in the territories conquered from Mexico that led to the Compromise of 1850, and again with the Bleeding Kansas controversy over slavery.[30] He said that the crisis would be reached and passed when slavery was put "in the course of ultimate extinction."

At Galesburg,[31] Douglas sought again to prove that Lincoln was an abolitionist because of his insistence upon the doctrine that "all men are equal". At Alton, Lincoln tried to reconcile his statements on equality. He said that the authors of the Declaration of Independence "intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects."[32] He contrasted his support for the Declaration with opposing statements made by John C. Calhoun and Senator John Pettit of Indiana, who called the Declaration "a self-evident lie." Lincoln said that Chief Justice Roger Taney and Stephen Douglas were opposing Thomas Jefferson's self-evident truth, dehumanizing blacks and preparing the public mind to think of them as only property. Lincoln thought that slavery had to be treated as a wrong, and kept from growing.[32]

Lincoln used a number of colorful phrases in the debates. He said that one argument by Douglas made a horse chestnut into a chestnut horse, and he compared an evasion by Douglas to the sepia cloud from a cuttlefish. Lincoln said that Douglas' Freeport Doctrine was a do-nothing sovereignty that was "as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death."[33]


1859 United States Senate election in Illinois
← 1852 January 5, 1859 1864 →
Nominee Stephen Douglas Abraham Lincoln
Party Democratic Republican
Electoral vote 54 46
Popular vote 211,124[34] 244,242[34]
Percentage 46.4% 53.6%

The October surprise of the election was former Whig John J. Crittenden's endorsement of Douglas. Non-Republican former Whigs comprised the biggest block of swing voters, and Crittenden's endorsement of Douglas rather than Lincoln reduced Lincoln's chances of winning.[35]

The districts were drawn to favor Douglas' party, and the Democrats won 40 seats in the state House of Representatives while the Republicans won 35. In the State Senate, Republicans held 11 seats and Democrats held 14. Douglas was re-elected by the legislature 54–46, even though Lincoln's Republicans won the popular vote with a percentage of 50.6, by 3,402 votes.[36] However, the widespread media coverage of the debates greatly raised Lincoln's national profile, making him a viable candidate for nomination as the Republican candidate in the upcoming 1860 presidential election.

Ohio Republican committee chairman George Parsons put Lincoln in touch with Ohio's main political publisher, Follett and Foster of Columbus. They published copies of the text in Political Debates Between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas in the Celebrated Campaign of 1858, in Illinois. Four printings were made, and the fourth sold 16,000 copies.[37]


In 1994, C-SPAN aired a series of re-enactments of the debates filmed on location.[38] The debate locations in Illinois feature plaques and statuary of Douglas and Lincoln.[39]


  1. ^ Nevins, Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847–1852, p. 163
  2. ^ Abraham Lincoln, Speech at New Haven, Conn., March 6, 1860.
  3. ^ Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 3.
  4. ^ Abraham Lincoln, Notes for Speech at Chicago, February 28, 1857
  5. ^ Speech in Reply to Senator Stephen Douglas in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate, at Chicago, Illinois (July 10, 1858).
  6. ^ David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, pp. 206–210
  7. ^ David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, pp. 212–213
  8. ^ First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858
  9. ^ First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858
  10. ^ First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858
  11. ^ How Lincoln Bested Douglas in Their Famous Debates
  12. ^ The Founding Fathers and the Election of 1864
  13. ^ Abraham Lincoln: From Pioneer to President
  14. ^ Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union: Fruits of Manifest Destiny 1847–1852, pp. 219–345
  15. ^ Third Debate: Jonesboro, Illinois, September 15, 1858
  16. ^ First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858
  17. ^ Third Debate: Jonesboro, Illinois, September 15, 1858
  18. ^ First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858
  19. ^ First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858
  20. ^ First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858
  21. ^ First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois, Douglas quote, August 21, 1858
  22. ^ First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858
  23. ^ a b c d Debate at Ottawa, Illinois, Lincoln quote, August 21, 1858
  24. ^ Debate at Freeport, Illinois, August 27, 1858
  25. ^ Second Debate: Freeport, Illinois, August 27, 1858
  26. ^ James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 195
  27. ^ David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, p. 220
  28. ^ David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, p. 221
  29. ^ Charleston debate
  30. ^ Third Debate: Jonesboro, Illinois, September 15, 1858
  31. ^ Debate at Galesburg, Illinois, October 7, 1858 – These quotes were originally from a speech made by Lincoln at Chicago, July 10, 1858
  32. ^ a b Debate at Alton, Illinois, October 15, 1858
  33. ^ Debate at Quincy, Illinois, October 13, 1858
  34. ^ a b "IL US Senate 1858". OurCampaigns. Retrieved November 28, 2018.
  35. ^ Guelzo, Allen C. (2008). Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America. pp. 273–277, 282.
  36. ^ Guelzo, Allen C. (2008). Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 284–285.
  37. ^ Guelzo, Allen C. (2008). Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 305–306.
  38. ^ "C-Span, Illinois re-enact Lincoln-Douglas debates History in the Re-making". tribunedigital-baltimoresun. Retrieved February 28, 2018.
  39. ^ "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates". Retrieved February 28, 2018.

Further readingEdit

  • On January 1, 2009, BBC Audiobooks America, published the first complete recording of the Lincoln–Douglas Debates, starring actors David Strathairn as Abraham Lincoln and Richard Dreyfuss as Stephen Douglas with an introduction by Allen C. Guelzo, Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College. The text of the recording was provided courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Association as presented in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Jaffa, Harry V. (2009). Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln–Douglas Debates, 50th Anniversary Edition. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-39118-2.
  • Good, Timothy S. (2007). The Lincoln–Douglas Debates and the Making of a President,. McFarland Press. ISBN 978-0-7864-3065-9.

External linksEdit