HomeLincoln-Douglas Debate Communities
 
The 1858 race for Senate
 
The debates begin
 
Six more debates
 
The campaign's outcome

A country descending into chaos

The United States was descending into conflict and violence in the 1850s. As the country expanded west of the Mississippi River, vast territories that would be brought into the union of states had become the focus of a struggle over slavery. Would slavery be allowed in new territories? Who would decide: Congress, by passing federal laws? Voters in the territories? The U.S. Supreme Court by fiat? Much was at stake. The addition of territory as “slave” or “free” threatened to upset the delicate political balance of northern and southern states. Adding to the tension were abolitionists—those who believed slavery was morally wrong and promoted its end, sometimes violently. Could the United States remain united half-slave and half-free? Or must it become one or the other? In Illinois, two politicians vying in 1858 for a seat in the U.S. Senate met to debate the issues, as the country looked on.

The 1858 race for Senate

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln stepped to the rostrum in the Hall of Representatives in the state Capitol to address the state convention of the Illinois Republican party meeting at Springfield. He had been nominated to run as the party’s candidate for U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas, a nationally prominent Democrat who had held the seat for ten years. Five sentences into his speech Lincoln famously declared “‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe the government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” The words are so famous that the oration is best known as the House Divided speech. The bulk of the address, though, was about a conspiracy that threatened the United States—a Democratic plot to legalize slavery in every state in the Union. One of the co-conspirators, said Lincoln: Stephen Douglas.

Douglas denied those charges in a speech three weeks later, on July 9, from the balcony of the Fremont House in Chicago. He had charges of his own against Lincoln, calling him a dangerous radical who advocated slavery’s abolition. Lincoln spoke from the same balcony the following evening—one of several times Lincoln followed on the heels of Douglas’s speeches.

Over the following two weeks Lincoln and Douglas made many campaign appearances—separately, and often on the same day in the same place. Then, in a letter on July 24, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of joint debates. Several days later, near Bement, the two men met on the road after Douglas had spoken at nearby Monticello, where Lincoln was scheduled to speak later in the day.  According to tradition, they arranged to meet at the Bement home of Francis Bryant—a friend of Douglas—to plan the debates. The next day Douglas proposed that they debate at Alton, Charleston, Freeport, Galesburg, Jonesboro, Ottawa, and Quincy.  Lincoln concurred.

Back to top

The debates begin

Less than a month later, on August 21, 1858, Lincoln and Douglas climbed to a wooden platform in Ottawa’s downtown to launch the series of seven debates that each hoped would propel him to election as senator in November. The music and parades of the morning and early afternoon had ended, and the political banners were put aside as Douglas rose to speak. A crowd estimated at no less than 10,000 doubled the city’s population. Pressing forward to hear, onlookers stood shoulder to shoulder in the oppressive afternoon heat. The ringing words of the seasoned debaters settled over the crowd as the breeze carried the smell of the horses, oxen, and coal-fired trains that had carried them there.

For most of the afternoon Lincoln and Douglas laid out their positions on the volatile issues of slavery and its extension. They argued about whether slavery should be extended into new western territories. Each sought to ally himself with America’s founders, who had declared in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and yet allowed slavery in the new republic.

Had the founding fathers intended for individual territories to make decisions on slavery, as Douglas claimed? Or had they, as Lincoln argued, placed slavery on a “course of ultimate extinction” by making no provision for its extension? Was Lincoln a dangerous revolutionary, as Douglas alleged, whose declaration that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” amounted to a declaration of war against slavery? Had Douglas, as Lincoln charged, conspired with fellow Democrats to subvert the will of the people?

Back to top

Six more debates 

Excited crowds of as many as 20,000 people greeted the debaters at six more cities over the next two months. Special trains carried passengers from hours away, some from neighboring states.  Lincoln and Douglas had a national audience as well. Eastern newspapers sent reporters to cover the debates, and many thousands across the country read of the contest between the two Illinoisans.

Again and again Lincoln and Douglas returned to the themes that they set forth in their first debate. Douglas vigorously argued for the right of the people in new territories to decide for themselves the question of slavery. His “popular sovereignty” doctrine would give new territories a good deal of political autonomy, and also shift the focus of the slavery debate away from Congress where it aggravated sectional tensions. Lincoln early staked out the moral high ground on slavery when he accused Douglas of “blowing out the moral lights around us” by encouraging slavery’s extension. Still, Lincoln did not advocate “the social and political equality of the white and black races”—a failure that today troubles even his staunchest champions.

Back to top

The campaign’s outcome

Although Lincoln won the popular vote, he did not win the Senate seat. Why? Until the 17th Amendment provided for direct election of senators by voters, the state legislature elected senators.  The Illinois legislature was controlled by the Democrats, and they predictably elected Douglas. In hindsight, Lincoln could hardly be considered a loser in the election. He had raised his public profile by appearing with a nationally known politician, had articulated a moral argument for the elimination of slavery, and potentially set the stage for a presidential run in 1860. Lincoln ultimately did run, winning that  election over three challengers — one of them Douglas. But the issues that divided politicians, and the people north and south, split the nation.  The Union soon dissolved into a bloody four-year civil war.

Back to top


Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition • #1 Old State Capitol Plaza • Springfield, IL 62701 • 217.782.6817