Wilson&DavisF08On August 21, 1858 upstart challenger Abraham Lincoln entered into the first of seven debates with incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas in Ottawa, Illinois.

Lincoln was challenging Douglas to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. The now-famous Lincoln-Douglas debates didn’t propel Lincoln to victory, but the engagement over the issue of slavery and the looming impact of the policy of human bondage captured nationwide attention.

Today we look upon the duel as a clash of titans. Not so in 1858. The Illinois electorate┬áconsidered Douglas as the great man of his state. As Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson note in their introduction to the debates, even Lincoln understood his place in the second rank. In 1856, the future president wrote of his longtime rivalry with Douglas. “With me,” he said, “the race of ambition has been a failure–a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success.”

Douglas had indeed earned┬áthe nickname of the Little Giant. A Senate powerhouse, he had authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, not out of any deference to slavery, but to facilitate railroad routes to the Pacific Ocean that ran, as it so happened, from Chicago. The Act opened up the possibility of slavery in two new territories. The Republican Party, already an ardent foe of Douglas, gained votes and popularity as Kansas devolved into “Bleeding Kansas,” a running battle of violence and fraud between proslavery forces and the Free State Kansans. A combination of political chicanery and Free Stater boycotts allowed a proslavery minority government in Lecompton, Kansas’s territorial capital, to issue a constitution that allowed Kansas to retain slavery.

Yet Douglas, with the savvy of a professional politician, broke ranks with the rest of the Democratic Party and opposed the Lecompton Constitution.

He vowed to senatorial colleagues that “if this constitution is to be forced down our throats, in violation of the fundamental principle of free government, under a mode of submission that is a mockery and an insult, I will resist it to the last.”. . . . Looking at his prospects in the campaigns of 1858 and 1860, and remembering how he had misread the political signs before promoting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Douglas had to take the position that would be most acceptable in Illinois and in the North generally.

In taking the position, he allied himself with Republican opinion, and threatened to split their caucus.

It was as an underdog that Lincoln approached Douglas:

with regard to “an arrangement for you and myself to divide time, and address the same audiences during the present canvass.” Within a week they were in agreement that a series of seven debates should take place between them at central points within each congressional district in which they had not previously made major speeches. Douglas, as the challenged party, was also able to insist that Lincoln only meet him “at the times specified,” to which Lincoln acquiesced.

With that, the stage was set.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, The Lincoln Studies Center Edition, edited by Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson is now available in paperback.

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