Who Won the Lincoln / Douglas Debates?

The Lincoln – Douglas Debates – Who won?

In 1858, Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas ran to represent Illinois in the Senate. They held seven debates across Illinois over two months. The format was the same:

  • the first candidate spoke for sixty minutes

  • the other candidate spoke for ninety minutes

  • then the first candidate had a thirty minute reply.

In those days, the State Legislature elected Senators. Hence Lincoln and Douglas wanted voters to support their party’s candidate for the legislature who would then vote Lincoln or Douglas into the U.S. Senate. This indirect election was similar to the Electoral College process for Presidential elections and was eventually changed with the 17th Amendment in 1913. Between ten to fifteen thousand spectators came to listen to these three hour debates.

The sole issue in these debates was slavery. As the United States expanded, first land would be governed as a territory under Federal regulations. Once the territory reached sufficient population, it wrote a constitution and applied for Statehood. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise banned slavery in any territory or future state, north of 36 degrees/30 minutes latitude (the southern border of Missouri). Earlier, Thomas Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had banned slavery in any territory/future State, north of the Ohio river.

Douglas sponsored the 1854 Kansas/Nebraska Act which supported the principle of ‘popular sovereignty’ allowing each state to make its own determination whether to approve or ban slavery, even if previously banned by the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Further, he supported the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott Decision which declared African-Americans ineligible for citizenship and prohibited Congress from banning slavery in any territory prior to applying for statehood. Many of Douglas’s statements are racist by today’s standards.

In the debates, Douglas explained his position on popular sovereignty as follows: “I hold that Illinois had a right to abolish and prohibit slavery as she did, and I hold that Kentucky has the same right to continue and protect slavery that Illinois had to abolish it…each and every State of this Union is a sovereign power, with the right to do as it pleases upon this question of slavery, and upon all its domestic institutions.

Douglas had a problem trying to reconcile the Dred Scott Decision, which allowed slaves into territories, with popular sovereignty granted citizens had the right to ban slaves. Douglas’s explanation was legalistic; he claimed a territory could ban slavery by failing to make laws that supported it. His position became known as the ‘Freeport’ doctrine since Douglas first propounded it in the second debate held in Freeport, Illinois. It made no one happy. Southerners opposed any limits on slavery expansion and Northerners believed a territory should be allowed to ban slavery if it so desired.

Douglas did not believe in African-American equality: “If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party…I believe this Government was …made by white men for the benefit of white men…”

Lincoln held a political middle ground between abolitionists, who wanted to end slavery entirely, and slave-owners who favored expansion into new territories and new States. He opposed expansion but was willing to allow it to continue where it already existed. As he expressed it: “I will say here…that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution in the States where it exists. I believe I have no right to do so. I have no inclination to do so.

Perhaps reflecting the sentiment of the time, Lincoln said that African-Americans might not be his social equals, but they should have equal rights: “…there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence-the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man…he [negroes] is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color-perhaps not in intellectual and moral endowments; but in 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 other man.

Douglas accused Lincoln of dividing the country and fomenting war: "I say that this is the inevitable and irresistible result of Mr. Lincoln's argument, inviting a warfare between the North and the South, to be carried on with ruthless vengeance, until the one section or the other shall be driven to the wall, and become the victim of the rapacity of the other.

Lincoln replied that the issue of slavery had already divided the country: “I leave it to you to say whether, in the history of our Government, this institution of slavery has not always failed to be a bond of union, and, on the contrary, been an apple of discord, and an element of division in the house.” Lincoln goes to state that the founding fathers wanted to restrict slavery expansion: “…I account for it by looking at the position in which our fathers originally placed it-restricting it [slavery] from the new Territories where it had not gone, and legislating to cut off its source by the abrogation of the slave-trade …The public mind did rest in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction.” Lincoln was referring to the Northwest land ordinance of 1787 which banned slavery north of the Ohio river, and the constitutional provision which allowed ending the international slave trade in 1808.

Douglas asserted he was not advocating for or against slavery, but that he was just in favor of allowing states’ self-determination: “I will not argue the question whether slavery is right or wrong. I hold that under the Constitution of the United States, each State of this Union has a right to do as it pleases on the subject of slavery.

Lincoln responds: “This declared indifference [to slavery]…I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.” Lincoln further states: “There are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says: You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.

Who won the debates? Democrats won 54 seats in the Illinois legislature, Republicans 46. Hence Douglas was elected Senator. Lincoln writes a letter after the loss, thinking his career was over:  “I am glad I made the late race. It gave me a hearing on the great and durable question of the age, which I could have had in no other way, and though I sink out of view, and shall be forgotten, I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I am gone.” Obviously he did not sink out of view, nor was he forgotten. Lincoln’s performance in these debates made him the acknowledged leader of the Republican party, leading to his 1860 Republican Presidential nomination and subsequent victory. Douglas’s ‘Freeport Doctrine’ cost him support in both the North and South. Although Northern Democrats nominated Douglas for President in 1860, Southern Democrats bolted from the party and nominated John Breckinridge as a third-party candidate, dividing the Democratic vote.

Who won the debates? Ultimately, I say freedom won.

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