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The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

In 1858, as the country moved ever closer to disunion, two politicians from Illinois attracted the attention of a nation. From August 21 until October 15, Stephen Douglas battled Lincoln in face-to-face debates around the state for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Lincoln challenged Douglas to a war of ideas and Douglas accepted the challenge and 7 debates were scheduled. Spectators came from all over Illinois and nearby states. The audiences participated by asking questions and cheering the participants.

During the debates, Douglas still advocated “popular sovereignty” which maintained the right of the citizens of a territory to permit or prohibit slavery. Lincoln pointed out that Douglas’s position directly challenged the Dred Scott decision, which decreed that the citizens of a territory had no such power.

Douglas replied that whatever the Supreme Court decided was not as important as the actions of the citizens; in what became known as the Freeport Doctrine. If a state refused to have slavery, no laws, no Supreme Court ruling would force them to permit it. This sentiment would be taken as betrayal to many southern Democrats and would come back to haunt Douglas in his bid to become president in the election of 1860.

Lincoln frequently mentioned that “a house divided could not stand.” Douglas refuted this by noting that the founders “left each state perfectly free to do as it pleased on the subject.”

Lincoln felt that blacks were entitled to the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, which include; “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Douglas argued that the founders intended no such inclusions for blacks.

Neither Lincoln nor Douglas won a popular vote that Fall. Under rules governing senate elections, voters cast their ballots for local legislators, who then choose a senator. The Democrats won a majority of district contests and returned Douglas to Washington.


Source: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
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