The third and fourth Lincoln-Douglas debates

September 15th, 2012

On September 15, 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas gathered before a crowd of roughly 1,500 people–mostly Democrats–in Jonesboro, Illinois, for their third debate in their campaign for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. Three days later, on September 18, the fourth debate occurred, this time in Charleston, IL, with nearly 12,000 people in attendance–many of whom had traveled from neighboring Indiana to attend.

At the Jonesboro debate, Douglas spoke first, and he once again raised the fundamental issue of disagreement between the two: whether the Union could remain half slave and half Free.

But I wish to invite your attention to the chief points at issue between Mr. Lincoln and myself in this discussion.

Mr. Lincoln knowing that he was to be the candidate of his party on account of the arrangement of which I have already spoken, knowing that he was to receive the nomination of the Convention for the United States Senate, had his speech, accepting that nomination, all written and committed to memory, ready to be delivered the moment the nomination was announced. Accordingly, when it was made, he was in readiness, and delivered his speech, a portion of which I will read, in order that I may state his political principles fairly, by repeating them in his own language:

“We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was instituted for the avowed object, and with the confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation; under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. I believe it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this Government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward until it shall become alike lawful in all the States, North as well as South.”

There you have Mr. Lincoln’s first and main proposition, upon which he bases his claims, stated in his own language. He tells you that this Republic cannot endure permanently divided into slave and free States, as our fathers made it. He says that they must all become free or all become slave, that they must all be one thing or all be the other, or this Government cannot last. Why can it not last, if we will execute the Government in the same spirit and upon the same principles upon which it is founded? […] Washington did not believe, nor did his compatriots, that the local laws and domestic institutions that were well adapted to the Green Mountains of Vermont were suited to the rice plantations of South Carolina; they did not believe at that day that in a Republic so broad and expanded as this, containing such a variety of climate, soil, and interest, that uniformity in the local laws and domestic institutions was either desirable or possible. They believed then as our experience has proved to us now, that each locality, having different interests, a different climate and different surroundings, required different local laws, local policy and local institutions, adapted to the wants of that locality. Thus our Government was formed on the principle of diversity in the local institutions and laws, and not on that of uniformity.

Lincoln responded by countering Douglas’s understanding of how the founders viewed slavery and its lasting impact:

Another form of his question is, “Why can’t we let it stand as our fathers placed it?” That is the exact difficulty between us. I say, that Judge Douglas and his friends have changed them from the position in which our fathers originally placed it. I say, in the way our fathers originally left the slavery question, the institution was in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind rested in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. I say when this Government was first established, it was the policy of its founders to prohibit the spread of slavery into the new Territories of the United States, where it had not existed. But Judge Douglas and his friends have broken up that policy, and placed it upon a new basis by which it is to become national and perpetual. All I have asked or desired any where is that it should be placed back again upon the basis that the fathers of our Government originally placed it upon. I have no doubt that it would become extinct, for all time to come, if we but readopted the policy of the fathers by restricting it to the limits it has already covered-restricting it from the new Territories.

Much of the next debate concerned Lincoln accusing Douglas of working, in 1856, to create a constitution for Kansas without allowing it to be voted upon by the people of the territory. (This was part of the Kansas-Nebraska, which helped to determine whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state.) But also at this debate, Lincoln (in)famously discussed his view of race relations, remarking that “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause] that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.”

Frederick Douglass, speaking in 1876 at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln, noted that, though African Americans had a “grateful sense of the vast, high, and preeminent services rendered to ourselves, to our race, to our country, and to the whole world by Abraham Lincoln,” Lincoln himself was not, “in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.” As a result, he continued, the white citizens “are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We [the former slaves] are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.” And yet, Douglass notes, because of the service rendered by Lincoln, and “because of his fidelity to union and liberty, he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever.”

Read Douglass’s entire oration here.

Related: Diana Schaub’s essay “Monumental Battles” in The Weekly Standard, in which she discusses Douglass, Lincoln, and the Freedmen’s Monument.

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