Seven Facts About the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

What You Should Know About the Legendary Political Battles

Painting of Lincoln Douglas debate.
Abraham Lincoln addressing crowd during a debate with Stephen A. Douglas. Getty Images

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, a series of seven public confrontations between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, took place in the summer and fall of 1858. They became legendary, and the popular conception of what happened tends to veer toward the mythical.

In modern political commentary, pundits often express a wish that current candidates could do "Lincoln-Douglas Debates." Those meetings between candidates 160 years ago somehow represent the pinnacle of civility and an elevated example of lofty political thought.

The reality of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was different than what most people believe. And here are seven factual things you should know about them:

1. First of all, they were not really debates.

It's true that the Lincoln-Douglas Debates are always cited as classic examples of, well, debates. Yet they were not debates in the way we think of a political debate in modern times.

In the format Stephen Douglas demanded, and Lincoln agreed to, one man would speak for an hour. Then the other would speak in rebuttal for an hour and a half, and then the first man would have a half-hour to respond to the rebuttal.

In other words. the audience was treated to lengthy monologues, with the entire presentation stretching out to three hours. And there was there was no moderator asking questions, and no give-and-take or fast reactions like we've come to expect in modern political debates. True, it wasn't "gotcha" politics, but it's also wasn't something that would seem to work in today's world.

2. The debates could be crude, with personal insults and racial slurs being hurled.

Though the Lincoln-Douglas Debates are often cited as some high point of civility in politics, the actual content was often pretty rough.

In part, this was because the debates were rooted in the frontier tradition of the stump speech. Candidates, sometimes literally standing on a stump, would engage in freewheeling and entertaining speeches that would often contain jokes and insults.

And it's worth noting that some of the content of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates would likely be considered too offensive for a network television audience today.

Besides both men insulting each other and employing extreme sarcasm, Stephen Douglas often resorted to crude race-baiting. Douglas made a point of repeatedly calling Lincoln's political party the "Black Republicans" and was not above using crude racial slurs, including the N-word.

Even Lincoln, albeit uncharacteristically, used the N-word twice in the first debate, according to a transcript published in 1994 by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. (Some versions of the debate transcripts, which had been created at the debates by stenographers hired by two Chicago newspapers, had been sanitized over the years.)

3. The two men were not running for president.

Because the debates between Lincoln and Douglas are so often mentioned, and because the men did oppose each other in the election of 1860, it's often assumed the debates were part of a run for the White House. They were actually running for the U.S. Senate seat already held by Stephen Douglas.

The debates, because they were reported nationwide (thanks to the aforementioned newspaper stenographers) did elevate Lincoln's stature. Lincoln, however, probably did not think seriously about running for president until after his speech at Cooper Union in early 1860.

4. The debates were not about ending slavery in America.

Most of the subject matter at the debates concerned slavery in America. But the talk was not about ending it, it was about whether to prevent slavery from spreading to new states and new territories.

That alone was a very contentious issue. The feeling in the North, as well as in some of the South, was that slavery would die out in time. But it was assumed it wouldn't fade away anytime soon if it kept spreading into new parts of the country.

Lincoln, since the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, had been speaking out against the spread of slavery. Douglas, in the debates, exaggerated Lincoln's position, and portrayed him as a radical abolitionist, which he was not. The abolitionists were considered to be at the very extreme of American politics, and Lincoln's anti-slavery views were more moderate.

5. Lincoln was the upstart, Douglas was the political powerhouse.

Lincoln, who had been offended by Douglas's position on slavery and its spread into western territories, began dogging the powerful senator from Illinois in the mid-1850s. When Douglas would speak in public, Lincoln would often appear on the scene and would offer a rebuttal speech.

When Lincoln received the Republican nomination to run for the Illinois senate seat in the spring of 1858, he realized that showing up at Douglas speeches and challenging him would probably not work well as a political strategy.

Lincoln challenged Douglas to the series of debates, and Douglas accepted the challenge. In return, Douglas dictated the format, and Lincoln agreed to it.

Douglas, as a political star, traveled the state of Illinois in grand style, in a private railroad car. Lincoln's travel arrangements were much more modest. He would ride in passenger cars with other travelers.

6. Huge crowds viewed the debates, yet the debates were not really the focus of the election campaign.

In the 19th century, political events often had a circus-like atmosphere. And the Lincoln-Douglas debates certainly had a festival air about them. Huge crowds, up to 15,000 or more spectators, gathered for some of the debates.

However, while the seven debates drew crowds, the two candidates also traveled the state of Illinois for months, giving speeches on courthouse steps, in parks, and in other public venues. So it's likely that more voters saw Douglas and Lincoln at their separate speaking stops than would have seen them engaging in the famous debates.

As the Lincoln-Douglas Debates received so much coverage in newspapers in major cities in the East, it's possible the debates had the greatest influence on public opinion outside of Illinois.

7. Lincoln lost.

It's often assumed that Lincoln became president after beating Douglas in their series of debates. But in the election depending on their series of debates, Lincoln lost.

In a complicated twist, the large and attentive audiences watching the debates were not even voting on the candidates, at least not directly. 

At that time, U.S. Senators were not chosen by direct election, but by elections held by state legislatures (a situation which would not change until the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913).

So the election in Illinois wasn't really for Lincoln or for Douglas. Voters were voting on candidates for the statehouse who in turn would then for which man would represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate.

The voters went to the polls in Illinois on November 2, 1858. When the votes were tallied, the news was bad for Lincoln. The new legislature would be controlled by the party of Douglas. The Democrats would have 54 seats in the statehouse, the Republicans, Lincoln's party, 46.

Stephen Douglas was thus reelected to the Senate. But two years later, in the election of 1860, the two men would face each other, as well as two other candidates. And Lincoln, of course, would win the presidency.

The two men would appear on the same stage again, at Lincoln's first inauguration on March 4, 1861. As a prominent senator, Douglas was on the inaugural platform. When Lincoln rose to take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural address, he held his hat and awkwardly looked about for a place to put it.

As a gentlemanly gesture, Stephen Douglas reached out and took Lincoln's hat, and held it during the speech. Three months later, Douglas, who had taken ill and may have suffered a stroke, died.

While the career of Stephen Douglas overshadowed that of Lincoln during most of his lifetime, he is best remembered today for the seven debates against his perennial rival in the summer and fall of 1858.