Historical Analysis of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Although the Lincoln-Douglas debates occurred in 1858, the debates are still well known and regarded by historians as important political moments in history. Lincoln's famous  House Divided Speech in which he said, "I believe this government cannot endure permanently half Slave and half Free" was spoken during these debates and began the launch of Abraham Lincoln’s political career. The issues over the stance of slavery and state rights influenced political discourse on a national level. This page will communicate the historical narrative of the debates that captures the nuances and controversies that impacted the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

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Background

During 1858, the United States was on the brink of dissolving. From August until October, two politicians were running for the Illinois senate seat. Both Stephen Douglas, the Democrat candidate, and Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, participated in debates that were held in locations throughout Illinois. Douglas, who was running for his third term, was a prominent politician in the Democratic party and due to his stature in society the debates and campaign received a lot of national attention.

The two key points in the debate were racial tensions created from the Dred-Scott decision and Kansas-Nebraska Act, as well as the idea of popular sovereignty. In 1857, The Dred Scott decision made by the Supreme Court ruled that slaves are the property of the owner. Therefore, slaves are not citizens of the United States. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide whether or not they will allow slavery. This Act served to repeal the Missouri compromise, which prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30´ since 1820.

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All of which inspired in the high tensions and mass crowds that these 7 debates accumulated. The debates consisted of Douglas accusing Lincoln of being an abolitionist while Lincoln accused Douglas of wanting to nationalize slavery. These main topics were reflective of the major issues that the country was facing at a national level with both sides battling for what they thought would better the Union.

Impact of Debates

Due to both candidates being very educated in law, the candidates spoke in complicated technical terms and for long amounts of time. The format for each debate consisted of one candidate speaking for 60 minutes, then the other candidate would speak for 90 minutes and then the first candidate would have a 30-minute repute.

The outdoor debates brought tens of thousands of spectators and newspaper reporters from all over Illinois. The audience members would cheer, ask questions, applaud, boo and laugh at the participants, as demonstrated in the C-SPAN reenactment video below.

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Historical Narrative

Some historians designated the Lincoln-Douglas debates as their model, forgetting Lincoln’s passivity and Douglas’s charade when they ran for president. As historical author Gil Troy described the debates, “Douglas would instill hostility while Lincoln would devised his strategy of passivity and part regularity. Leaving no offense to others.”


The debates were publicized not only all over Illinois but in states all over the U.S. Major papers sent reporters to each of the debates and newspapers would reprint the debates in full. However, the articles would have partisan edits benefiting the candidates each paper supported. The common factor of party-controlled newspapers at the time demonstrated the incivility, extreme partisanship and superficial nature of campaigns, which many have the preconceived notion that it is a more recent phenomenon.

Since the Democrat ticket won the majority of the districts, Douglas won the seat. However, neither Lincoln nor Douglas won the popular election that fall.

Abraham Lincoln

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Lincoln, who taught himself law, moved to Springfield in 1936 where he began practicing law and became involved in politics. Lincoln’s performance in the 1858 debates raised his reputation nationally. Lincoln’s performance made his reputation nationally and by 1860, he was nominated by the Republican party presidential candidate. Lincoln won the election and became the 16th president of the United State.

Lincoln believed that the combination of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision only extended slavery deeming it as a necessary evil.

Stephen Douglas

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The incumbent Stephen A. Douglas was a former congressman and current attorney. Douglas supported the idea of “popular sovereignty,” or that the permit or prohibition of slavery in the territories was to be determined by the settlers themselves. Douglas was a lifelong Jacksonian, who believed that the power should reside at the local level and should reflect the wishes of the people.

Douglas was one of the Democratic leaders who incorporated the doctrine in the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  In 1860, Douglas was nominated by the party to run against Lincoln of the presidency but lost the election.

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