The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858

Debates in the Illinois Senate Race Had National Significance

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

When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas met in a series of seven debates while running for a Senate seat from Illinois they fiercely argued the critical issue of the day, the institution of enslavement. The debates elevated Lincoln's profile, helping to push him toward his run for president two years later. Douglas, however, would actually win the 1858 Senate election.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates had national impact. The events of that summer and fall in Illinois were covered widely by newspapers, whose stenographers recorded transcripts of the debates, which were often published with days of each event. And while Lincoln would not go on to serve in the Senate, the exposure from debating Douglas made him prominent enough to be invited to speak in New York City in early 1860. And his speech at Cooper Union helped propel him into the 1860 presidential race.

Lincoln and Douglas Were Eternal Rivals

Engraved portrait of Senator Stephen Douglas
Senator Stephen Douglas.

Stock Montage / Getty Images

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates were actually the culmination of a rival lasting nearly a quarter-century, as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas had first encountered each other at the Illinois state legislature in the mid-1830s. They were transplants to Illinois, young lawyers interested in politics yet opposites in many ways.

Stephen A. Douglas rose quickly, becoming a powerful U.S. Senator. Lincoln would serve a single unsatisfying term in Congress before returning to Illinois in the late 1840s to concentrate on his legal career.

Lincoln may never have returned to public life if not for Douglas and his involvement in the notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln's opposition to the potential spread of enslavement brought him back to politics.

June 16, 1858: Lincoln Delivers the "House Divided Speech"

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln by Preston Brooks 1860
Candidate Lincoln photographed by Preston Brooks in 1860. Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln worked hard to secure the nomination of the young Republican Party to run for the Senate seat held by Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. At the state nominating convention in Springfield, Illinois in June 1858 Lincoln delivered a speech which became an American classic, but which was criticized by some of Lincoln's own supporters at the time.

Invoking scripture, Lincoln made the famous pronouncement, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

July 1858: Lincoln Confronts and Challenges Douglas

Lincoln had been speaking out against Douglas since the passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lacking an advance team, Lincoln would show up when Douglas would speak in Illinois, talking after him and providing, as Lincoln put it, a "concluding speech."

Lincoln repeated the strategy in the 1858 campaign. On July 9, Douglas spoke on a hotel balcony in Chicago, and Lincoln responded from the same perch the following night with a speech that received a mention in the New York Times. Lincoln then began to follow Douglas about the state.

Sensing an opportunity, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates. Douglas accepted, setting the format and choosing seven dates and venues. Lincoln didn't quibble, and quickly accepted his terms.

August 21, 1858: First Debate, Ottawa, Illinois

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

According to the framework created by Douglas, there would be two debates in late August, two in mid-September, and three in mid-October.

The first debate was held in the small town of Ottawa, which saw its population of 9,000 double as crowds descended on the town the day before the debate.

Before a huge crowd assembled in a town park, Douglas spoke for an hour, attacking a startled Lincoln with a series of pointed questions. According to the format, Lincoln then had an hour and a half to respond, and then Douglas had a half-hour to rebut.

Douglas engaged in race-baiting that would be shocking today, and Lincoln asserted that his opposition to enslavement did not mean he believed in total racial equality.

It was a shaky start for Lincoln.

August 27, 1858: Second Debate, Freeport, Illinois

Before the second debate, Lincoln called a meeting of advisers. They suggested he should be more aggressive, with a friendly newspaper editor emphasizing that the wily Douglas was a "bold, brazen, lying rascal."

Leading off the Freeport debate, Lincoln asked his own sharp questions of Douglas. One of them, which became known as the "Freeport Question," inquired whether people in a US territory could prohibit enslavement before it became a state.

Lincoln's simple question caught Douglas in a dilemma. Douglas said he believed a new state could prohibit enslavement. That was a compromise position, a practical stance in the 1858 senate campaign. Yet it alienated Douglas with southerners he would need in 1860 when he ran for president against Lincoln.

September 15, 1858: Third Debate, Jonesboro, Illinois

The initial September debate only drew about 1,500 spectators. And Douglas, leading off the session, attacked Lincoln by claiming that his House Divided speech was inciting warfare with the south. Douglas also claiming Lincoln was operating under the "black flag of Abolitionism," and went on at some length asserting that Black people were an inferior race.

Lincoln kept his temper in check. He articulated his belief that the nation's founders had been opposed to the spread of enslavement into new territories, as they were anticipating "its ultimate extinction."

September 18, 1858: Fourth Debate, Charleston, Illinois

The second September debate drew a crowd of about 15,000 spectators in Charleston. A large banner sarcastically proclaiming "Negro Equality" may have prompted Lincoln to begin by defending himself against charges that he was in favor of mixed-race marriages.

This debate was noteworthy for Lincoln engaging in strained attempts at humor. He told a series of awkward jokes pertaining to race to illustrate that his views were not the radical positions ascribed to him by Douglas.

Douglas concentrated on defending himself against charges made against him by Lincoln supporters and also boldly asserted that Lincoln was a close friend of North American 19th-century Black activist Frederick Douglass. At that point, the two men had never met or communicated.

October 7, 1858: Fifth Debate, Galesburg, Illinois

The first October debate drew a large crowd of more than 15,000 spectators, many of whom had camped in tents on the outskirts of Galesburg.

Douglas began by accusing Lincoln of inconsistency, claiming he had changed views on race and the enslavement question in different parts of Illinois. Lincoln responded that his anti-enslavement views were consistent and logical and were in line with the beliefs of the nation's founding fathers.

In his arguments, Lincoln assailed Douglas for being illogical. Because, according to Lincoln's reasoning, the position Douglas held of allowing new states to legalize enslavement only made sense if someone ignored the fact that enslavement is wrong. No one, Lincoln reasoned, could claim a logical right to commit wrong.

October 13, 1858: Sixth Debate, Quincy, Illinois

The second of the October debates was held at Quincy, on the Mississippi River in western Illinois. Riverboats brought spectators from Hannibal, Missouri, and a crowd of nearly 15,000 assembled.

Lincoln again spoke of the institution of enslavement as a great evil. Douglas railed against Lincoln, terming him a "Black Republican" and accusing him of "double-dealing." He also claimed Lincoln was anti-enslavement activist on a level with William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass.

When Lincoln responded, he mocked accusations from Douglas "that I want a Negro wife."

It's worth noting that while the Lincoln-Douglas Debates are often lauded as examples of brilliant political discourse, they often contained racial content that would be startling to a modern audience.

October 15, 1858: Seventh Debate, Alton, Illinois

Only about 5,000 people came to listen to the final debate, held at Alton, Illinois. This was the only debate attended by Lincoln's wife and his eldest son, Robert.

Douglas led off with his usual blistering attacks on Lincoln, his assertions of white superiority, and arguments that each state had the right to decide the issue of enslavement.

Lincoln drew laughter with humorous shots at Douglas and "his war" with the Buchanan administration. He then slammed Douglas for supporting the Missouri Compromise before turning against it with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. And he concluded by pointing out other contradictions in arguments put forth by Douglas.

Douglas concluded by attempting to tie Lincoln with "agitators" who were opposed to enslavement.

November 1858: Douglas Won, But Lincoln Gained a National Reputation

At that time there was not direct election of senators. State legislatures actually elected senators, so the ballot results which mattered were the votes for the state legislature cast on November 2, 1858.

Lincoln later said that he knew by the evening of election day that the state legislature results were going against the Republicans and he would thus lose the senatorial election which would follow.

Douglas did hold on to his seat in the US Senate. But Lincoln was elevated in stature, and was becoming known outside Illinois. A year later he would be invited to New York City, where he would give his Cooper Union Address, the speech that began his 1860 march toward the presidency.

In the election of 1860 Lincoln would be elected the nation's 16th president. As a powerful senator, Douglas was on the platform in front of the U.S. Capitol on March 4, 1861, when Lincoln took the oath of office.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858." ThoughtCo, Oct. 25, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, October 25). The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).