The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | October 3, 2012

October 3, 2012
Add to History Board Share Print

What with the Republican presidential contenders debating twenty-seven times this year, and now, the Democratic and Republican candidates for president scheduled to go three – to say nothing of the vice-presidential candidates squaring off as well – some among us are wondering, how in the world did it come to this? The answer is simple: Lincoln. In 1858, running against incumbent Stephen A. Douglas for Senator of Illinois, Lincoln challenged Douglas “for you and myself to divide time, and address the same audiences.” Why he did this, and what came of their seven debates, is the story told Between the Lines here.

The incumbent was rich, powerful, and charismatic; the challenger awkward, unsung, and worked for a living. But when Stephen A. Douglas, nicknamed by his national following the “Little Giant”, faced off in the 1858 Illinois’ senatorial race against a Springfield lawyer and one-term ex-Congressman named Abraham Lincoln, history was about to be upended – although how, exactly, wouldn’t be obvious until two years later.

What happened, that late summer and early fall of 1858, was a debate – or rather, seven of them, between Lincoln and Douglas, over three months, in which Lincoln and Douglas, sharing a platform, took turns delivering one-hour opening addresses, one and a half hour replies, and half-hour rejoinders. That this epic series came to take place at all, however, is largely owing to this brief Lincoln letter about a campaign stop.

Lincoln’s strategy was simple – and not, really, a matter of choice. Fighting an uphill battle against the better-financed, better-organized Douglas, who attracted attention wherever he went, Lincoln merely decided to just follow Douglas around the state and speak where he spoke. When Lincoln’s friend and supporter, Bloomington lawyer William H. Hanna, wrote on July 13th, then, to inform him that Douglas was scheduled to be in Bloomington on Friday, July 16th, Lincoln promptly replied:

“Reaching home yesterday evening I found your letter of the 13th. No accident preventing, I will be with you Friday afternoon and evening. I do not know that there will be any opening for me, but I shall try to be on the grounds to take the chances.”

That Friday evening, Lincoln was indeed in Bloomington, listening to Douglas. As soon as Douglas finished, calls went up for Lincoln to speak too. Lincoln, however, declined. The meeting, he said, had been organized by the friends of Douglas, and it would be improper for him to address it. But the next day Lincoln trailed Douglas to nearby Atlanta and, again, was in the audience that afternoon when calls rang out for him to speak when Douglas finished. Lincoln refused this time, too, to take advantage of the Democratic meeting. Instead, he spoke later that evening, defending himself against Douglas’ charges that he stood for Negro equality, against the Dred Scott decision, and was altogether an agent of disunion. Yet surely in all this following and listening and answering after; in playing defense, and losing, rather than offense, and perhaps winning: the idea of battling Douglas face-to-face came to mind – and on July 24th, Lincoln wrote to Douglas to challenge him to share a platform, and debate.

As the frontrunner, Douglas hardly wanted to elevate Lincoln to his level, even if for only a few hours – but fear of being accused of cowardice, had he dodged the challenge, settled the matter conclusively. So they would meet, Douglas declared, once in each of the state’s congressional districts, and as they had already spoken, albeit separately, in two of them, they would appear together in the remaining seven; furthermore, he would determine where and when, with the first debate to be held on August 21, and the last, on October 15.

The ensuing debates – in which was argued, conclusively, whether the nation might, in Lincoln’s words, “endure permanently half slave and half free” – have long since become part of American folklore and certainly, they occasioned, in Lincoln, the most audacious rise from obscurity to political prominence in American history. But although thousands upon thousands of Illinoisans came out to hear the candidates and thousands and thousands of newspaper inches chronicled their contest, it was not until the publication, in 1860, of The Political Debates between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas that the legend of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates truly began.

The Debates would be the means of Lincoln’s storied ascent to the presidency as, though he lost the Senate race, his words, once published, would introduce him to the nation – albeit the words printed therein, crucially, were not exactly the words which Lincoln had spoken. This discrepancy arose from an unlikely truth: Lincoln, off the cuff, was not always a good speaker. Without a text, he could be, in fact, quite dreadful. But reading a speech – which he had himself written – he was, simply, unparalleled. This was why, after the election, in ostensible response for a printed record of the Debates, he undertook to “re-write” the published newspaper accounts of the contest…

Lincoln, bearing in mind that the newspaper reports were politically biased – the Democratic papers making Douglas look good and him bad, and the Republican papers, vice-versa – merely undertook to make himself look a little better: enough so, that he appeared at his best and Douglas, in comparison, at his worst. To what degree Lincoln revised his debate speeches has, ever since, been argued by scholars, and would have been even more vigorously argued by the principles at the time, had not Douglas been gearing up to take the Democratic nomination and Lincoln bidding, improbably, for the Republican. Yet given the intensity of the 1860 presidential contest, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates became a bestseller – an advertisement, some said, for Lincoln outright; – and perhaps, even, the game-changer, in that most extraordinary and momentous election.

Lincoln was given a hundred copies of the Debates – by the Republican publisher Follet, Foster and Company – to distribute to friends. Today, 19 presentation copies are known to exist. Most are signed in pencil which, over time, have faded. Only 4 copies, however, are signed in ink; this great rarity, inscribed to Lincoln’s second law partner and political associate, Stephen T. Logan, is one of them.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. 1809 – 1865. The 16th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), 1 page, quarto, Springfield, Illinois, July 15, 1858. To W.H. Hanna, Esq.

Signed Book (“A. Lincoln”), Political Debates Between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephan A Douglas, in the Celebrated Campaign of 1858 In Illinois. Inscribed in ink on flyleaf to the Honorable S.T. Logan, “from his friend, A Lincoln.” First edition, Columbus, 1860.

Manuscripts Related To This Article