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Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln-Douglas Debates: Abraham Lincoln was the 16th American President who served in office from March 4, 1861 to April 15, 1865. One of the important events prior to his presidency were the series of Lincoln Douglas Debates.

Definition and Summary of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Summary and definition:
The Lincoln Douglas Debates were a series of seven public discussions held in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas as they contested the Illinois Senate seat. Lincoln was the Republican Party candidate and Senator Douglas was the incumbent Democratic Party candidate.

The debates concerned the issue of slavery and its extension into territories such as Kansas. The Lincoln Douglas debates transformed Abraham Lincoln into a national figure and led to his election to the presidency in 1860.

Lincoln Douglas Debates for kids
The famous Lincoln Douglas Debates were between two ambitious politicians, who both aspired to be President of the United States.  Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln came head-to-head during the contest for the Illinois Senate seat. Lincoln was relatively unknown whereas Douglas was the incumbent Senator of Illinois and at the time, had been a member of Congress since 1843 and was the front runner candidate from the Northern Democratic Party for the 1860 Presidential election.

Lincoln Douglas Debates: The Debates begin
The two men had known each other for some time and were on cordial terms on a personal level. In fact, Douglas had once dated Abraham Lincoln's future wife
Mary Todd Lincoln. Douglas tried to avoid a direct confrontation with Lincoln, who used this to his advantage on the campaign trail, answering each Douglas speech with one of his own a day or two later. These incidents led Douglas to agree to seven formal joint appearances which became known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. The Lincoln Douglas debates began at Ottawa, Illinois on August 21, 1858.

Lincoln Douglas Debates for kids
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas agreed to debate in seven of the nine Illinois Congressional Districts. Both Douglas and Lincoln had already spoken in two of the districts, Springfield and Chicago, leaving the remaining seven districts for their joint debates.

Format of the Lincoln Douglas Debates
The Lincoln Douglas debates attracted massive interest and attendance figures. The format for the seven debates were either Lincoln or Douglas would open with a one hour address and the other would respond with their own speech that lasted for 1˝ hours. The first speaker then had 30 minutes to refute aspects of his opponents speech. Lincoln was particularly adept at drawing Douglas into highly contentious areas.

Lincoln Douglas Debates for kids: The Audiences and Events
The massive numbers of spectators who attended the Lincoln Douglas Debates came from all over Illinois and many also traveled from the nearby states. The debates were noisy, highly participative events in which the audience cheered or heckled the speakers or shouted questions, all of which were accompanied by loud applause and laughter. The lengthy debates were entertaining and the speakers were often sarcastic towards their opponent and littered with jokes and insults. The Lincoln Douglas debates not only attracted thousands of voters but they also attracted newspaper reporters from across the nation. The content of the Lincoln Douglas debates were treated as 'breaking news', the top stories of the day and reports of the events were transmitted across the country via the
newly established Telegraph Lines.

Lincoln Douglas Debates for kids: The Elections
The Lincoln Douglas Debates have become so famous that many believe that it was part of a presidential election campaign. It wasn't. Lincoln and Douglas were competing for the Illinois Senate seat - and at this time in American history U.S. Senators
were elected by state legislatures. This would not change until the 17th Amendment was passed in 1913, stating that the people will elect Senators. The electors were voting on candidates for the legislature, who would then vote for which man would represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. Who won the Lincoln Douglas debates? The result of the Illinois elections on November 2, 1858 were bad news for Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party - the new legislature would be controlled by the Democratic party of Stephen Douglas, who was re-elected to the Senate. However the series of debates had placed the practically unknown Lincoln well and truly on the Political map. The two men would face each again in 1860, during the presidential election, and this time Lincoln would win the presidency.

Lincoln Douglas Debates and the Slavery Issue: Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen Douglas had already placed his head well above the political parapet and become a prime target for Lincoln to shoot down. Lincoln specifically targeted
his questions to Douglas on the subjects of Popular Sovereignty, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas- Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott Decision.

  • Stephen Arnold Douglas was a Important supporter of the concept of Popular Sovereignty that asserted the right of the people living in a new territory to decide by vote of their territorial legislature whether or not slavery would be allowed.

  • The Popular Sovereignty doctrine was incorporated into the Compromise of 1850, which had been drafted by Henry Clay and Senator Stephen A. Douglas, in an attempt to defuse the confrontation between the Northern free-states and the Southern slave-states regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War.

  • The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was a law written by Senator Stephen Douglas that divided new territories into Kansas and Nebraska. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was another compromise, based on the doctrine of Popular Sovereignty, that contravened the 1820 Missouri compromise and allowed the people to decide whether or not to have slavery

  • The debates also allowed Lincoln to raise the highly controversial result of the Dred Scott Decision that had ruled that a slave was not a citizen.

  • Douglas could not avoid the question of slavery

Lincoln Douglas Debates: Topics
What was the main topic of the Lincoln-Douglas debates? The main theme and topics of the Lincoln–Douglas debates was slavery, particularly the issue of the expansion of slavery into the territories. The topics of the individual Lincoln Douglas Debates were as follows:

1st Debate in Ottawa: Lincoln was referred to as a radical abolitionist and accused Douglas with trying to nationalize slavery

2nd Debate in Freeport:  Lincoln asked Douglas to reconcile his belief in Popular Sovereignty proposed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act with the Dred Scott decision. The response from Douglas became known as the Freeport Doctrine in which he 'sat on the fence' expressing both pro-slavery and anti-slavery positions - this stance infuriated Southern Democrats, members of his own party

3rd Debate in Jonesboro:  Douglas stated that Lincoln stood for racial equality but tempered his view playing to the audience if they were from slave holding states

4th Debate in Charleston:  Lincoln accused Douglas of being in a conspiracy with Chief Justice Roger Taney, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan to nationalize slavery

5th Debate in Galesburg: Douglas took great pains to explain his opposition to the Lecompton Constitution, a pro-slavery document, that was written during the confrontations in Bleeding Kansas

6th Debate in Quincy: Lincoln emphasized that slavery was morally wrong but emphasized that Republicans would only attack slavery where the Constitution allowed. Douglas again 'sat on the fence' on the issue of slavery

7th Debate in Alton:  Douglas attacked Lincoln's House Divided Speech delivered when he accepted nomination as the Republican Party's nomination as senator for Illinois. Lincoln's words were "A house divided against itself cannot stand" voicing a prophecy for a future American Civil war (1861-1865) on the issue of slavery.

Significance of the Lincoln Douglas Debates
What was the significance of the Lincoln-Douglas debates? The significance of the Lincoln Douglas Debates was that:

  • Lincoln forced Douglas to defend the doctrine of popular sovereignty in relation to the issue of slavery

  • Douglas went on the win the senatorial election, but his stance on the slavery issue alienated him from the Southern Democrats and weakened his power in the Senate

  • Lincoln edited the texts of all the debates that were published in a book increasing his publicity and popularity 

  • Lincoln gained national recognition, that enabled him to win the presidency in1860 that ultimately led to the abolition of slavery

  • The debates were favorable to Abraham Lincoln who became President of the United States and fatal to the career of Stephen Douglas

  • These events contributed to the Causes of the Civil War

US American History
1850-1865: Civil War Era

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