Clicking on the Web: History of Lincoln-Douglas debates

In a second part of a three-part series, Clicking on the Web goes back farther than the last four decades of heated presidential debates to reflect on the history of popular debates between Abraham Lincoln and his challenger, Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate.

Howard Lestrud

Howard Lestrud

Lincoln lost the election for the Senate but two years later defeated Douglas for the presidency.

Our interest in the presidential race of 2012 will continue to be stimulated by upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates. President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney meet in three debates, Oct. 3, 16 and 22.

Vice presidential candidates Joe Biden (D) and Paul Ryan (R) square off on Oct. 11.

In the third part in the series on presidential debates we will take a look at presidential debates of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the 2000 years.

Let’s go back to Lincoln era and examine some interesting history of the issues during the 1850s.

Before looking at the issues discussed by Lincoln and Douglas in the U.S. Senate debates and again in the presidential debates, let’s list some links of interest:

• Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

• History Channel: http://www.history.com/topics/lincoln-douglas-debates

• National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/debates.htm

• The Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/lincolndouglas/

• About.com American History: http://americanhistory.about.com/od/civilwarmenu/a/lincoln_douglas.htm

For a complete look at the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the issues, let’s read from Wikipedia:

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had seven debates in Illinois during 1858.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had seven debates in Illinois during 1858.

The Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858 were a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for Senate in Illinois, and the incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Party candidate.

At the time, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures; thus Lincoln and Douglas were trying for their respective parties to win control of the Illinois legislature.

The debates previewed the issues that Lincoln would face in the aftermath of his victory in the 1860 presidential election.

The main issue discussed in all seven debates was slavery.

In agreeing to the debates, Lincoln and Douglas decided to hold one debate in each of the nine congressional districts in Illinois.

Because both had already spoken in two—Springfield and Chicago—within a day of each other, they decided that their “joint appearances” would be held only in the remaining seven districts.

The debates were held in seven towns in the state of Illinois: Ottawa on Aug. 21, Freeport on Aug. 27, Jonesboro on Sept. 15, Charleston on Sept. 18, Galesburg on Oct. 7, Quincy on Oct. 13, and Alton on Oct. 15.

The debates in Freeport, Quincy and Alton drew especially large numbers of people from neighboring states, as the issue of slavery was of monumental importance to citizens across the nation.

Newspaper coverage of the debates was intense.

Major papers from Chicago sent stenographers to create complete texts of each debate, which newspapers across the United States reprinted in full, with some partisan edits.

Newspapers that supported Douglas edited his speeches to remove any errors made by the stenographers and to correct grammatical errors, while they left Lincoln’s speeches in the rough form in which they had been transcribed.

In the same way, pro-Lincoln papers edited Lincoln’s speeches, but left the Douglas texts as reported.

After losing the election for Senator in Illinois, Lincoln edited the texts of all the debates and had them published in a book.

The widespread coverage of the original debates and the subsequent popularity of the book led eventually to Lincoln’s nomination for President of the United States by the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago.

The format for each debate was: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute “rejoinder.”

The candidates alternated speaking first.

As the incumbent, Douglas spoke first in four of the debates.

Before the debates, Lincoln said that Douglas was encouraging fears of amalgamation of the races with enough success to drive thousands of people away from the Republican Party.

Douglas tried to convince, especially the Democrats, that Lincoln was an abolitionist for saying that the American Declaration of Independence applied to blacks as well as whites.

Lincoln called a self-evident truth “the electric cord … that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together.”

Lincoln argued in his House Divided Speech that Douglas was part of a conspiracy to nationalize slavery.

Lincoln said that ending the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in Kansas and Nebraska was the first step in this direction, and that the Dred Scott decision was another step in the direction of spreading slavery into Northern territories.

Lincoln expressed the fear that the next Dred Scott decision would make Illinois a slave state.

Both Lincoln and Douglas had opposition.

Although Lincoln was a former Whig, the prominent former Whig Judge Theophilus Lyle Dickey said that Lincoln was too closely tied to the abolitionists, and supported Douglas.

But Democratic President James Buchanan opposed Douglas for defeating the Lecompton Constitution, and set up a rival National Democratic Party that drew votes away from him.

The main theme of the debates was slavery, especially the issue of slavery’s expansion into the territories.

It was Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and replaced it with the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which meant that the people of a territory could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery.

Lincoln said that popular sovereignty would nationalize and perpetuate slavery.

Douglas argued that both Whigs and Democrats believed in popular sovereignty and that the Compromise of 1850 was an example of this.

Lincoln said that the national policy was to limit the spread of slavery, and mentioned (both at Jonesboro and later in his Cooper Union Address) the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which banned slavery from a large part of the modern-day Midwest, as an example of this policy.

Widespread media coverage of the debates greatly raised Lincoln’s national profile, making him a viable candidate for nomination as the Republican candidate in the upcoming 1860 presidential election.

He would go on to secure both the nomination and the presidency, besting Douglas in the process.

Editor’s note: Howard Lestrud is ECM online managing editor.

 

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