Lincoln-Douglas debates: Part two

August 6th, 2012

On August 27, 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas met for their second debate in their campaign for the United States Senate seat from Illinois. Nearly 15,000 people from northern Illinois traveled to Freeport to watch the debate.

Lincoln spoke first, quickly answering the seven questions that Douglas had asked at the last debate, and then posed several questions for Douglas himself to answer. As before, much of the debate focused on the issue of slavery and popular sovereignty, especially in light of the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision of the previous year, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Congress did not have authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories.

Lincoln’s four questions were:

Question 1. If the people of Kansas shall, by means entirely unobjectionable in all other respects, adopt a State Constitution, and ask admission into the Union under it, before they have the requisite number of inhabitants according to the English bill–some ninety-three thousand–will you vote to admit them? [Applause.]

Q. 2. Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution? [Renewed applause.]

Q. 3. If the Supreme Court of the United States shall decide that States cannot exclude slavery from their limits, are you in favor of acquiescing in, adopting and following such decision as a rule of political action? [Loud applause.]

Q. 4. Are you in favor of acquiring additional territory, in disregard of how such acquisition may affect the nation on the slavery question? [Cries of “good,” “good.”]

In responding to these questions, Douglas framed what would become known as the Freeport Doctrine:

I answer emphatically, as Mr. Lincoln has heard me answer a hundred times from every stump in Illinois, that in my opinion the people of a Territory can, by lawful means, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution. Mr. Lincoln knew that I had answered that question over and over again. He heard me argue the Nebraska bill on that principle all over the State in 1854, in 1855, and in 1856, and he has no excuse for pretending to be in doubt as to my position on that question. It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations. (Right, right.) Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature, and if the people are opposed to slavery they will elect representatives to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst. If, on the contrary, they are for it, their legislation will favor its extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a slave Territory or a free Territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska bill. I hope Mr. Lincoln deems my answer satisfactory on that point.

Though Douglas went on to win the Senate seat, when he ran for president in 1860, his position in the Freeport Doctrine alienated many Southern Democrats who did not think Douglas went far enough in protecting the practice of slavery in new territories. This caused a split in the Democrat party, which led, in part, to the election of Lincoln to the presidency.

Read the rest of the Freeport debate here.

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