Today in History: Lincoln-Douglas Debates begin in 1858

August 21st, 2013

On August 21, 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Democratic incumbent Stephen A. Douglas held the first of their seven historic debates as candidates for the Senate in Illinois. These long-form debates focused on the subject of slavery’s expansion into the territories.

As we near the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, consider the role that race and civil rights played in 19th-century political debates. In the lead-up to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas used Lincoln’s famous “House Divided Speech” to attack Lincoln’s abolitionism. A skilled debater, Lincoln did not go so far as to call for social equality between all races, but he repeated the call made in his “House Divided Speech” to prevent slavery’s expansion into new territories:

But all this, to my judgment, furnishes no more excuse for permitting slavery to go into our own free territory, than it would for reviving the African slave-trade by law. The law which forbids the bringing of slaves from Africa, and that which has so long forbid the taking of them to Nebraska, can hardly be distinguished on any moral principle; and the repeal of the former could find quite as plausible excuses as that of the latter.

Unlike modern political debates, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates gave each candidate the chance to speak at great length, without interruption. The debates were each three hours long, with one candidate speaking for 60 minutes, followed by a 90-minute rebuttal, and a 30-minute rejoinder. C-SPAN created a re-enactment of the debate which can be watched here.

A surprising endorsement by a prominent former Whig politician for Douglas helped the Democrats win a majority of seats in the Illinois General Assembly, which in turn re-elected Douglas. The debates were not a complete loss for Lincoln, however. The national attention garnered by the Lincoln-Douglas debates helped Lincoln launch a successful presidential campaign just two years later. 

After learning about Lincoln’s role in ending slavery, consider the Civil Rights Movement’s progress toward equal rights. Check out our ebook “The Meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day” for more.

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