Third in the Lincoln Sesquicentennial Series, this issue recalls the 1858 political debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas that made Lincoln a national figure.
On August 21, 1858, Abraham Lincoln participated in the first of seven debates against Stephen Douglas. Part of a race for an Illinois seat in the US Senate, they became known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates or the Great Debates of 1858.
Lincoln’s opposition of Douglas had actually begun a few years earlier. In 1854, he vocally opposed the Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise that had restricted slavery.
The act included popular sovereignty, which gave people the right to determine whether or not to allow slavery in their territory. In response to this, Lincoln delivered his “Peoria Speech,” which claimed the Kansas Act “declared indifference, but as I must think, covert, real zeal, for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world…”
By June 1858, the Illinois Republicans unanimously nominated Lincoln as their “first and only choice for the United States Senate.” That evening, Lincoln delivered the speech that catapulted him into the national limelight – the House Divided speech.
The attention Lincoln received from his speech led Douglas to agree to a series of debates. The first was held on August 21, 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois. Subsequent debates were held on August 27 in Freeport, September 15 in Jonesboro, September 18 in Charleston, October 7 in Galesburg, October 13 in Quincy, and October 15 in Alton.
More than just the Senate seat was at stake – the party of whichever man won the election would also control the Illinois state legislature. One topic was especially prominent throughout the debates – slavery, with much emphasis on expanding the institution into new territories.
Due to the growing interest in the slavery issue in neighboring states and across the country, stenographers were sent to the debates to record Lincoln and Douglas’ arguments to be published in newspapers. However, newspapers of the day were often slanted toward the different political parties. It was common for Democratic newspapers to correct the grammatical errors made by the stenographers recording Douglas’ speeches while leaving Lincoln’s speeches in their rough form. This made Lincoln appear less intelligent than his opponent. Newspapers supporting either candidate often took part in this practice.
With the publication of his stirring words in countless Republican newspapers across the country, Lincoln established himself as an excellent speaker and soon found his national fame and popularity growing. Shortly after the debates, Lincoln collected his speeches and had them published in a book, which further increased his popularity.
Though Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, he had gained the national fame that would lead him to the White House.
Click here to read the speeches from each debate.
Click here for more Lincoln stamps.