The significance of the Lincoln-Douglas debates for the political history of America is hard to overestimate. Therefore, careful analysis of these debates can be extremely educational and enlightening. This paper will focus on three main aspects of the analysis, namely the causes of the debates, the content of the debates, and the results of the debates.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a series of seven debates during the Illinois senatorial race of 1858 between Republican Abraham Lincoln and the Democratic incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas. The candidates were sharply divided on the issue of slavery. Before Lincoln announced a formal challenge, the candidates spoke in turn in the cities of Chicago and Springfield. Thus, Lincoln suggested speaking to the same audiences at one time by writing the following to Douglas:
‘Will it be agreeable to you…to make an arrangement for you and myself to divide time, and address the same audiences during the present canvass?’ (Encarta, 2007, para. 3).
Scrutinizing the social and political circumstances at the time of the election campaign, it is necessary to note the Kansas-Nebraska Act, sponsored by Douglas, allowing slavery in the U.S. territories north of latitude 36°30′ if there citizens agreed to it, and the U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scott decision of 1857, allowing masters to bring slaves into free territory without any alterations in the legal status of a slave. Therefore, the Supreme Court Dred Scott decision entered into a contradiction with the Kansas-Nebraska Act (Encarta, 2007).
As for the content of the debate, Lincoln’s main focus was the human rights issue implicitly present in the debate on slavery. He told the audience that slavery violated the Declaration of Independence and was firmly determined to portray the practice of slavery as evil and immoral. For his part, Douglas paid considerable attention to legal technicalities, such as the principle of ‘popular sovereignty’ under which inhabitants were able to decide whether they would accept slavery in their territory (Encarta, 2007).
However, this principle ‘with its self-proclaimed neutrality toward whether slavery was voted up or voted down, was a sheer absurdity on its face, according to Lincoln’ (Jaffa, 1999, p. 31).
Lincoln employed all his rhetorical skills to prove the moral and ethical unacceptability of slavery. He also perceived the sharp division over the issue of slavery as a threat to national unity. When accepting his nomination, he said the following phrase:
‘A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this Government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free’ (University of Houston, 2008, para. 4).
He also argued that the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision were a part of conspiracy aimed at legalizing slavery in the entire territory of the United States.
Douglas, in turn, focused on the right to self-government, which he saw as being of preeminent importance. However, as the debates progressed, Douglas started to clash Lincoln’s position directly and accused him of favoring black Americans over whites. He ended up picturing his opponent as a radical politician inciting tension and possible civil war. Lincoln denied this and voiced his support for the Fugitive Slave Law and the existence of slavery in the territories where such practice had been already established.
The issue of slavery was debated in the light of the prospect of granting citizenship to black Americans. Douglas was fiercely opposed to such a notion, while Lincoln took the middle ground by recognizing black citizens’ right to life, liberty, and economic freedom while being wary about the acceptability of ‘bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races’ (University of Houston, 2008, para. 10).
The two candidates also had opposing views on the institutional nature of slavery. Douglas was convinced that slavery could not exist without the support of friendly local legislation and was essentially a dying practice. Thus, his suggestion was to treat it as a local problem to be decided by inhabitants of a certain territory. Local residents, in his view, could de facto outlaw this practice by refusing to pass legislation protecting property right of slave owners:
‘Slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere…unless it is supported by local police regulations’ (University of Houston, 2008, para. 12).
On the contrary, Lincoln believed that slavery, with its status undecided, had a potential of spreading quickly on the nationwide scale. As concerns the results of the race, Lincoln lost it, yet, in his own words, it was ‘a slip and not a fall’ (University of Houston, 2008, para. 15).
Lincoln’s popularity was boosted greatly by the series of debates, which, in turn, contributed to his victory in the Presidential race of 1860. However, the debates had far-reaching implications by attracting public attention to the issues of slavery and human rights as well as establishing the tradition of formal debates between candidates for a governmental post.
Jaffa, Harry V. (1999). Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Revised Ed. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. (2007). ‘Lincoln-Douglas Debates.’ Retrieved January 20, 2008, from http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_1741500415/Lincoln_Douglas_Debates.html
University of Houston. (2008). ‘The Lincoln-Douglas Debates.’ Retrieved January 20, 2008, from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=336