Lincoln vs. Douglas in 1858

By Harold Frost

The History Channel Magazine, 2008

The town of Ottawa, Illinois, was quiet in the early morning hours of August 21, 1858. As the sun rose, people began assembling for the big event.

Horse-drawn wagons arrived carrying farm families. Riverboats discharged their passengers after a 70-mile trip from Chicago via the Illinois & Michigan Canal. By early afternoon, maybe 10,000 people had shown up, doubling Ottawa’s population.

In the town square, a brass band played “Oh! Columbia.” Children played tag. A boy ladled cool lemonade from a horse trough, just the ticket on a hot afternoon. Young men glanced shyly at young women, and vice versa. Farmers – sunburned fellows wearing straw hats and overalls – shook hands with one another, folded their forearms across their chests, and discussed the corn crop, rainfall, farm equipment, and politics.

“For Americans in those days,” writes historian Stephen B. Oates, “stump political oratory was an exciting form of entertainment, a kind of open-air theater.” Illinois was a hotbed for this brand of spectacle.

Abraham Lincoln

This event was not merely entertainment, of course. This was a pivotal battle in the national fight about slavery. Today’s debate, between two candidates for the U.S. Senate, would focus on this burning issue. Reporters from Chicago were present, notebooks and pencils in hand, ready to telegraph their stories to a waiting nation.

“Here they come!” people shouted in the town square at about 2:30 p.m. as the two candidates moved toward the flag-draped speaking platform. 

Stephen A. Douglas, the “Little Giant,” was the U.S. Senate’s most famous and important member, a Democrat who expected not only to be re-elected by Illinoisans in November but to become President of the United States in 1861. He was short (5′-4″) with an over-sized head and piercing eyes. (A number of people who grew up in the Romantic Era cultivated piercing, flashing eyes, inspired by such figures as Beethoven and Napoleon.) Douglas had a barrel chest and a strutting walk – he was “the very embodiment of force,” wrote an admirer. His attire was elegant: ruffled shirt, gleaming shoes, and a white beaver hat that he doffed to the ladies.

His opponent gave off a different sort of energy. His eyes did not pierce. He was quieter, more thoughtful, perhaps more cautious. Abraham Lincoln, a Republican and former Congressman, was tall (almost 6′-4″), thin, and pale. His clothes were plainer than those of Douglas; his trousers were a bit too short; his boots did not gleam.

Did Lincoln wear non-fancy duds in order to connect with his audience? To stand apart from the Eastern sheen of Stephen Douglas? Maybe so – he had a reputation for being shrewd. Still, some people in Ottawa probably wondered if this spindly fellow possessed sufficient gumption for an occasion such as this. Could he generate adequate personal force to get his message across? Could he summon the lung power?

The two men climbed onto the platform. The crowd cheered. The nation listened. 


Lincoln and Douglas debated seven times in August, September, and October of 1858, starting in Ottawa and continuing through Alton, thoroughly examining the issue of slavery.


Six years earlier, in 1852, Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer who had served one term in Congress, delivered a eulogy to his political hero, Sen. Henry Clay, who died on June 29 of that year. Lincoln mentioned Clay’s long labor to find a middle course on slavery that might preserve the Union.

Clay, a Kentuckian, played a significant role in passage of the Compromise of 1850, which restricted the ability of slavery to expand in the territories. Abraham Lincoln, in common with many Americans, believed the “peculiar institution” would now wither and die.

In the wake of the compromise, America’s natural optimism burst forth after a brief hiatus. The early 1850s “shed a warm glow of hope and satisfaction” over the national scene, writes historian Samuel Eliot Morison. Eager immigrants arrived. (They were usually welcomed, though not always.) Westward expansion accelerated. Gold came in from California. The economy grew, floating many boats.

But black people were still oppressed. The matter of slavery had not really been resolved. It required additional examination by lawmakers. In May, 1854, came a lightning bolt from the nation’s capital: the Kansas-Nebraska Act, drafted and sponsored by Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. Angry passions flared up again from pro- and anti-slavery advocates, and this time, writes Morison, “there was no Henry Clay to quench them.”

The act allowed settlers in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves if they wanted slavery. This doctrine, known as popular sovereignty, was the “principle theme” of Douglas’ career, writes historian Robert W. Johannsen – the springboard by which the senator intended to gain the White House in 1861. (Popular sovereignty can be defined more broadly. See here for exegesis of the phrase.)

A statue of Stephen A. Douglas
in the Illinois State Capitol.

Douglas believed that if everyone, North and South, accepted popular sovereignty, the Union could be preserved. The United States, united, well-organized, and robust, could achieve greatness, could fulfill its “manifest destiny” to fill the continent, coast to coast, and also take over Mexico and Cuba. Lots of people would get really rich including Stephen Douglas.

Without acceptance of popular sovereignty, said Douglas, disagreement over slavery would split the Union and thus weaken it. A weakened Union could never reach its full greatness, he argued.

Lincoln believed that popular sovereignty was unconstitutional – incompatible with the dictates of the Constitution on the role of the federal government. He also believed that the net effect of popular sovereignty was to promote the expansion of slavery. It was Douglas’ technique for finessing, ignoring, abrogating, wishing away, a key, stark, stunning, uncompromising phrase of the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.” (That is, all human beings.) The Declaration, said Lincoln, states that all men are “equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It sets up “a standard maxim for free society” that applies to “all people, of all colors, everywhere.” It is a law of the Creator. It might be subject to political gamesmanship – it might be subverted by cynical people promoting popular sovereignty – but it remains a permanent law of nature. It remains the truth.

Lincoln saw the Declaration, with this bold statement about equality, as the founding document of the nation’s soul, even more than the Constitution, which had much less to say about equality. Lincoln breathed new life into the Declaration. Until the 1850s the document was not widely regarded as central to the life of the nation – important, yes, but not central. As historian Merrill Peterson commented in 1994, “I think that Lincoln’s rediscovery of the Declaration of Independence in the 1850s was one of the most important things that ever happened in American politics.” Worthy of note is the fact that certain pro-slavery politicians of this era regarded the Declaration, in the words of one, as a “self-evident lie.”

Lincoln believed that if democracy is to succeed over the long haul, certain core principles must be respected by everyone, including human equality. In Lincoln’s view, if Americans disagreed about equality, they occupied a “house divided,” in his famous phrase of June 16, 1858.

If the house was divided, could it stand? Could democracy thrive in the face of disunion? Maybe not, said Lincoln. Democracy was still an experimental idea in the 1850s. (Perhaps it still is, and always will be; in the 1850s it was like a growing child, healthy but vulnerable.) Lincoln asked a pertinent question: can a democracy “maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes”? Can it preserve itself against discontented individuals and groups who take advantage of their freedom, disdain core principles such as equality and reasoned debate, and separate themselves, physically and/or emotionally, from the central government? Does democracy, Lincoln wondered, have this “inherent, and fatal weakness”?

If it does, he suggested, it’s in trouble and perhaps doomed. Warlords could take over in regions, states, and neighborhoods, and among religious and ethnic groups. Many confederacies might emerge – mistrust, hatred, and chaos might mark their relationships – bloody factionalism would emerge – joustings for power and territory would span the centuries – “a North American Balkans” would come forth, in the phrase of historian Harold Holzer, rather than a people united and made peaceable by their shared belief in a few core ideas. Union is essential to democracy, said Lincoln, echoing the nation’s founders. Disunion was a nightmare that had haunted the republic from its earliest days.

Commitment to union, belief in equality, a trust in reasoned debate – these things already seemed to be dead in the South, according to Lincoln and others. Fifty years earlier, Southern states had not been so benighted. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (both of whom were Virginians and slave owners) hoped and believed that slavery would fade away in time. A change had come over the South in the half-century between Jefferson and Lincoln. The region had shifted from the hopes of the founders to a disturbing new idea, promulgated by opinion leaders in Richmond, Atlanta, Charlottesville, and Montgomery: that slavery was a positive good for blacks; that it was also good for whites; that it was God’s natural ordering of things; and that it was worthy of armed protection and aggressive expansion.

In the 1850s these bizarre ideas seemed to be spreading nationwide. In the opinion of Lincoln and other members of the new Republican Party, writes the scholar Harry V. Jaffa, “the doctrine of popular sovereignty, as interpreted by Douglas, was the miner and sapper, which was preparing just such a change of opinion in the North as had already come over the South.” Douglas, said Lincoln, was helping to nationalize the peculiar and hateful institution. (See here for a transcript of a 2002 debate involving Jaffa, which examines details of this era and provides a good introduction to Jaffa’s seminal thought on Lincoln.)

The spread of slavery is wrong, many Northerners came to believe in the 1850s. Slavery itself is wrong, some said, and besides, its spread would affect a lot of jobs. The South lashed back. As historian Morison writes, Southerners believed that “honor demanded that slavery follow the flag” into the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska. And, notes scholar James Bryce, the South wanted to expand the slave realm “in order that by creating new Slave States they might maintain at least an equality in the Senate and thereby prevent any legislation hostile to slavery.”


As Abraham Lincoln began to speak about these topics in the Ottawa town square, some of his supporters were probably concerned about his stiffness and awkwardness, the jerky, almost spastic movements of his arms when he made a point, and of course the famously “uncomely face,” as one journalist described it. But Lincoln had the gift of getting better as he warmed up. A clue to how the candidate came across in Ottawa can be gleaned from the observations of a man who attended a Lincoln speech 18 months later:

“Pretty soon he began to get into his subject; he straightened up, made regular and graceful gestures; his face lighted as with an inward fire; the whole man was transfigured. I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities. Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet with the rest….cheering this wonderful man.”

Stephen Douglas also did very well in the debates, getting his points across with power. One reporter (possibly a Republican) commented on the Ottawa event,

“The Democratic spokesman (Douglas) commanded a strong, sonorous voice, a rapid, vigorous utterance, a telling play of countenance, impressive gestures, and all the other arts of the practiced speaker….Yet the unprejudiced mind felt at once that, while there was on the one side a skillful dialectician and debater arguing a wrong and weak cause, there was on the other a thoroughly earnest and truthful man, inspired by sound convictions in consonance with the true spirit of American institutions.”

It should be added that the “strong, sonorous” voice of Douglas began exhibiting signs of strain toward the end of the debates, while Lincoln was savvy enough to preserve his vocal power all through the contests.

In the debates, Douglas appealed to the rampant racial prejudice of the day. Historian James M. McPherson describes a moment during one debate when the senator shouted that black people “must always occupy an inferior position.” His partisans responded with cheers – a clear indication of the profound and pervasive racism of the era. (Should the racism of Stephen A. Douglas be judged by today’s standards? See here for a comment by a historian.) Lincoln, notes McPherson, didn’t always take the highest possible road on the subject of race, conceding some ground “to the prejudices of most Illinois voters,” but he also took a strikingly advanced position during the campaign, saying, in a Chicago speech, “Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and that race and the other race being inferior.” Instead we should “unite as one people throughout this land.”


So who won the great debates? According to McPherson, “In the judgment of history – or at least most historians – Lincoln ‘won’ the debates.” Nonetheless, Douglas was re-elected to the Senate in November, maintaining control of the northern wing of the Democratic Party, which nominated him for the presidency in 1860.

Abraham Lincoln became presidential timber by showing that he could hold his own with the great Stephen Douglas. Lincoln soon published a book with remarks from the debates; it sold well and advanced his name. In 1859 he gave impressive speeches across the country, culminating in early 1860 with his Cooper Union address in New York City, the most important speech ever given by an American running for office. (See “Lincoln at Cooper Union” by Harold Holzer [2004] and a Holzer article on this topic here.) A primary reason for Lincoln’s “self-discovery” during these months, writes historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, was a “new confidence gained from the contest with Douglas.”

The debates of 1858 carried Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas to the portico of the White House. “But only one,” notes Fehrenbacher, “could enter.” ●