- Discuss the principles of the Republican Party as expressed by Abraham Lincoln in 1858 in the Lincoln-Douglas debates
The turmoil in Kansas, combined with the furor over the Dred Scott decision, provided the background for the 1858 senatorial contest in Illinois between Democratic senator Stephen Douglas and Republican hopeful Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and Douglas engaged in seven debates before huge crowds that met to hear the two men argue the central issue of slavery and its expansion. Newspapers throughout the United States published their speeches. Whereas Douglas already enjoyed national recognition, Lincoln remained largely unknown outside of Illinois before the debates. These appearances provided an opportunity for him to raise his profile with both northerners and southerners.
Douglas denigrated the Republican Party as an abolitionist effort—one that even favored miscegenation, or race-mixing through sexual relations or marriage. The “Black Republicans,” Douglas declared, posed a dangerous threat to the Constitution. Indeed, because Lincoln declared the nation could not survive if the slave state–free state division continued, Douglas claimed the Republicans aimed to destroy what the founders had created.
For his part, Lincoln said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. 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. It will become 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 became alike lawful in all the States—old as well as new, North as well as South.” Lincoln interpreted the Dred Scott decision and the Kansas-Nebraska Act as efforts to nationalize slavery: that is, to make it legal everywhere from New England to the Midwest and beyond.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
On August 21, 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met in Ottawa, Illinois, for the first of seven debates. People streamed into Ottawa from neighboring counties and from as far away as Chicago. Reporting on the event was strictly partisan, with each of the candidates’ supporters claiming victory for their candidate. In this excerpt, Lincoln addresses the issues of equality between Black people and White people.
[A]nything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, . . . I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, . . . I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. . . . [N]otwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. . . . [I]n the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.
—Lincoln’s speech on August 21, 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois
How would you characterize Lincoln’s position on equality between Black people and White people? Might there be a tactical reason for framing his position in this way?
Go to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site on the National Park Service’s website to read excerpts from and full texts of the debates. Then, visit The Lincoln/Douglas Debates of 1858 on the Northern Illinois University website to read different newspaper accounts of the debates. Do you see any major differences in the way the newspapers reported the debates? How does the commentary vary, and why?
During the debates, Lincoln demanded that Douglas explain whether or not he believed that the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case trumped the right of a majority to prevent the expansion of slavery under the principle of popular sovereignty. Douglas responded to Lincoln during the second debate at Freeport, Illinois. In what became known as the Freeport Doctrine, Douglas adamantly upheld popular sovereignty, declaring: “It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please.” The Freeport Doctrine antagonized southerners who supported slavery, since it raised the possibility that slavery might not extend into the territories, and caused a major rift in the Democratic Party. The doctrine did help Douglas in Illinois, however, where most voters opposed the further expansion of slavery even as many had no great love for Black Americans.
The Illinois legislature selected Douglas over Lincoln for the senate, but the debates had the effect of launching Lincoln into the national spotlight. (Voters did not directly elect senators until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1913.) Lincoln had argued that slavery was morally wrong, even as he accepted elements of the racism inherent in slavery. He warned that Douglas and the Democrats would nationalize slavery through the policy of popular sovereignty. Though Douglas had survived the senate election challenge from Lincoln, his Freeport Doctrine damaged the political support he needed from the Southern Democrats. This contributed to his defeat in the following presidential election, and undermined the Democratic Party as a national force.
Link to Learning
To get a feel for what the debates might have looked like in real life, watch this 1940 dramatization of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. This video from teacher Jared Bruning also provides more context to help understand the nature of the debates.
Freeport Doctrine: a doctrine that emerged during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in which Douglas reaffirmed his commitment to popular sovereignty, including the right to halt the spread of slavery, despite the 1857 Dred Scott decision affirming slaveholders’ right to bring their property wherever they wished
miscegenation: race-mixing through sexual relations or marriage