The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Mr. Lincoln wrote to Senator Douglas on July 24, 1858: "Will it be agreeable to you to make an arrangement for you and myself to divide time, and address the same audience during the present canvass? Mr. [Norman B.] Judd, who will hand you this, is authorized to receive your answer; and, if agreeable to you, to enter into the terms of such arrangement."1
Senator Douglas made several objections in his reply – especially about previous commitments: "Recent events have interposed difficulties in the way of such an arrangment [sic]. I went to Springfield last week for the purpose of conferring with the Democratic State Central Committee upon the mode of conducting the canvass and with them and under their advice, made a list of appointments covering the entire period until late in October. The people of the several localities have been notified of the time and places of the meetings. These appointments have all been made for Democratic meetings and arrangements have been made by which the Democratic Candidates for Congress, for the Legislature and other offices will be present and address the people. It is evident, therefore, that these various candidates, in connection with myself, will occupy the whole time of the day and evening and leave no opportunity for other speeches."2
Douglas also objected to the possibility that a third party candidate might also make a claim on Douglas's time and then said: "I cannot refrain from expressing my surprise, if it was your original intention to invite such an arrangement that you should have waited until after I had made my appointments, inasmuch as we were both at Bloomington, Atlanta, Lincoln and Springfield, where it was well known I went for the purpose of consulting with the State Central Committee and agreeing upon the plan of campaign."3 He then said he wouldn't disrupt existing commitments, but "I will, in order to accommodate you as far as it is in my power do so, take the responsibility of making an arrangement with you for a discussion between us at one prominent point in each Congressional district in the state, excepting the second and sixth districts, where we have both spoken and in each of which cases you had the concluding speech. If agreeable to you I will indicate the following places as those most suitable in the several Congressional districts at which we should speak, to wit, Freeport, Ottawa, Galesburg, Quincy, Alton, Jonesboro' & Charleston."4 Mr. Lincoln followed up on July 29:
Yours of the 24th. in relation to an arrangement to divide time and address the same audiences, is received; and, in apology for not sooner replying, allow me to say that when I sat by you at dinner yesterday I was not aware that you had answered my note, nor certainly, that my own note had been presented to you. An hour after I saw a copy of your answer in the Chicago Times; and, reaching home, I found the original awaiting me. Protesting that your insinuations of attempted unfairness on my part are unjust; and with the hope that you did not very considerately make them, I proceed to reply. To your statement that 'It has been suggested recently that an arrangement had been made to bring out a third candidate for the U.S. Senate who, with yourself, should canvass the state in opposition to me &c.' I can only say that such suggestion must have been made by yourself; for certainly none such has been made by, or to me; or otherwise, to my knowledge. Surely you did not deliberately conclude, as you insinuate, that I was expecting to draw you into an arrangement, of terms to be agreed on by yourself, by which a third candidate, and my self, 'in concert, might be able to take the opening and closing speech in every case.'
Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote: "It is inaccurate to say, as so many historians do, that the Little Giant 'accepted' this challenge. Lincoln's plan, if agreed to, would have meant at least fifty debates, an exhausting thing even to contemplate. Douglas dared not respond with an outright refusal, but he had no intention of going through the entire campaign yoked to Lincoln."6 Douglas biographer Damon Wells wrote: "There was a deeper reason for Douglas' reluctance to accept Lincoln's challenge. Douglas' ultimate success in political joint debate had been limited. Although he usually won the argument, he sometimes lost the campaign."7 Douglas had very little choice since Lincoln was bound to follow him anyway – creating the appearance of cowardice on Douglas' part if he declined to debate. He replied on July 30:
Your letter, dated yesterday, accepting my proposition for a discussion at one prominent point in each Congressional district. Stated in my previous letter was received this morning.
On July 31, Mr. Lincoln replied: "Yours of yesterday, naming places, times, and terms, for joint discussions between us, was received this morning. Although, by the terms, as you propose, you take four openings and closes to my three, I accede, and thus close the arrangement. I direct this to you at Hillsboro; and shall try to have both your letter and this, appear in the Journal and Register of Monday morning."9
Mr. Lincoln had been laying the groundwork for these debates in another way. Fellow attorney Henry Rankin later wrote: "It may be of interest to add some mention of the laborious care Lincoln took in preparation for his debate with Douglas by studious application from June until the debates began. It was a summer in which that mood, spoke of before, of intense application to the work before him shut out everything else. He was in the State Library nearly every day, searching old volumes of the Congressional Globe, and other original sources of information. He went through the clippings he and Mr. Herndon had made since 1848 from the Charleston Mercury, Richmond Enquirer, Louisville Journal, and other Southern papers; and with especial care he again went through the back numbers of the Southern Literary Messenger, re-reading articles by the best Southern writers on the policies that divided public opinion on the question of slavery and States' rights."
Rankin wrote: "His campaign note-books, when finished, could not have been more complete to meet the expected and unexpected questions liable to be sprung on him during the debate. He was no longer the Abraham Lincoln with leisure for the interests of all callers. He lived through laborious days and often late into studious nights; and when he went forth into that debate it was with a firm foundation of well-settled principles, and fully equipped with all historical and collateral data possible to be acquired by him on the live political issues of the day. Best of was the complete confidence he had acquired in himself of his ability to meet Senator Douglas, or any other publicist North or South, in the discussion of the interests and problems then before the country. This was no self-asserting egotism. He was the freest from that of all men who have ever engaged the attention of the nation."10
Contemporary biographer Josiah G. Holland wrote: "As about three weeks intervened between the date of this agreement for joint debates and the first appointment, both parties engaged zealously in their independent work. Mr. Lincoln began his canvass at Beardstown, the spot where, twenty-five years before, he had taken his military company for rendezvous before starting out for the Black Hawk war."11
Lincoln chronicler Francis Fisher Browne wrote: "The institute of slavery was the topic around which circled all the arguments in these joint discussions. It was the great topic of the hour; the important point of division between the Republicans and Democratic parties. Mr. Lincoln's exposition of the subject was profound, logical, and exhaustive."12 Douglas biographer Damon Wells wrote: "To audiences still shaken from the financial panic of the year before, neither Lincoln nor Douglas had anything to say about money, banking, or securities reform. In a world only recently made smaller by the laying of the Atlantic cable, no mention was made of trade, tariff, foreign policy, or immigration. In a state not many years removed from the frontier, nothing was said about homestead lands or the Pacific railroad."13
Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher recapitulated hours of debate: "Lincoln's case against Douglas may be summarized as follows: The divisive influence of slavery was one great threat to the American union, and the policy inaugurated in the Kansas-Nebraska Act had only intensified the sectional conflict. On the moral issue posed by slavery there could be no middle ground; the neutralism preached by Douglas was calculated to dull the Northern conscience and thus clear the way for legalization of the institution everywhere in the nation. Only the Republican program, which accorded with the views of the founding fathers, offered a feasible alternative to this grim eventuality. Slavery must be recognized as an evil and, within the bounds of the Constitution, treated as an evil. Specifically, it must be confined to its existing limits and marked for ultimate extinction."14
Historian Olivier Frayssé wrote: "During the 1858 debates, under the pressure of Douglas's questions, Lincoln put forward two distinct explanations of what he meant by equality. The first rested on the idea that the inalienable rights of man, as affirmed in the Declaration, were abstract rights that could progressively become concrete as civilization advanced. Lincoln often cited [Henry] Clay in support of this idea. The second, formulated in the same speech as the previous one, was based on the equality of all men as workers. Never disputed by Douglas, who accused Lincoln of changing the subject when he brought it up and who himself remained silent on the question, the opposition that Lincoln established, not between abstract liberty and slavery but rather between independent or wage labor on the one hand and slave labor on the other, was the most important for his audience. Indeed, Lincoln would now be able to answer with greater precision the questions that Illinois raised concerning the future of land and labor. Faithful to his style, Lincoln continued to use the allegory but, although the image of the fence retained all of its importance, the relationship to the land he put forward was no longer one of mere ownership of abstract property, but rather one of occupying and actively working the soil."15
Because of Senator Douglas's opposition to the policies of the Buchanan Administration on slavery in the territory of Kansas, Douglas had attracted some support from Eastern Republicans – to the aggravation of their Illinois colleagues. Douglas biographer Robert W. Johannsen wrote: "Lincoln was more sensitive to the dilemma than most others, probably because he had more at stake. He anxiously insisted that the differences between Douglas and the Republicans had not been diminished. Douglas' position on the Lecompton question was no reason for a re-appraisal of party policy; in voting together against the administration 'neither Judge Douglas nor the Republicans, has conceded anything which was ever in dispute between them. The differences remained as sharp as before, the Republicans 'insisting that Congress shall, and he insisting that Congress shall not, keep slavery out of the Territories before & up to the time they form State constitutions.'"16
Historian Harry V. Jaffa wrote that "By and large we shall find that Douglas's record with respect to slavery rests upon two axioms: first, that the question must be kept out of the halls of Congress, where it could do only mischief by destroying national feeling; and, second, that the boundaries of the United States must be extended and new territory as rapidly as possible on the basis of popular sovereignty. The connection between these axioms is this: Douglas believed that the organization of new territory would rapidly result in new free states, would lead to an overwhelming preponderance of freedom over slavery in the Union and an absorption in the constructive task of filling and building up the vast continental domain, a task which would so engage the energies of the nation as to leave the subject of slavery neglected and largely forgotten."17
Historian Kenneth J. Winkle wrote: "During the debates, each man struggled to push his opponent out of the center and into the extremes of antislavery opinion. Lincoln launched an opening salvo by delivering his famous House Divided speech in Springfield even before the debates began."18 Douglas biographer Gerald M. Capers wrote: "Lincoln and Douglas were politicians, the one as much as the other. If the worse interpretation be placed on the motives of the one, so must they be placed on those of the other. If they are judged on the basis of hindsight, however, conclusion is unchallengeable. Lincoln seized upon the key vulnerability his rival's position: the Little Giant's repeated statement that he did not care whether the territories voted slavery up or down. Such was not the Senator's true feeling."19
The debates were like a long boxing match with each debater confident of his best punches but testing his opponents weaknesses. Douglas biographer Damon Wells wrote: "Each man sought to take the offensive while keeping his opponent on the defensive. Each man tried to occupy and hold the high ground of principle while forcing his adversary to conduct his attack from less noble terrain. Yet, of the two, Douglas found it more difficult to mount a strong offensive. In his role as incumbent, his actions restricted by the responsibilities of his high office, Douglas knew that his campaign would be essentially a holding action. Douglas' arguments were marked by an occasional brilliant sally in the direction of the enemy camp, but for the most part he was content to remain within his own lines."20
The debates presented many kinds of contrast. Francis Grierson wrote: "Douglas – short, plump, and petulant; Lincoln – long, gaunt, and self-possessed; the one white-haired and florid, the other black-haired and swarthy; the one educated and polished, the other unlettered and primitive. Douglas had the assurance of a man of authority, Lincoln had moments of deep mental depression, often bordering on melancholy, yet controlled by a fixed, and, I may say, predestined will."21
Grierson wrote: "Lincoln had no genius for gesture and no desire to produce a sensation. The failure of Senator Douglas to bring conviction to critical minds was caused by three things: a lack of logical sequence in argument, a lack of intuitional judgment, and a vanity that was caused by too much intellect and too little heart. Douglas had been arrogant and vehement, Lincoln was now logical and penetrating. The Little Giant was a living picture of ostentatious vanity; from every feature of Lincoln's face there radiated the calm, inherent strength that always accompanies power. He relied on non props. With a pride sufficient to protect his mind and a will sufficient to defend his body, he drank water when Douglas, with all his wit and rhetoric, could begin or end nothing without stimulants. Here, then, was one man out of all the millions who believed in himself, who did not consult with others about what to say, who never for a moment respected the opinion of men who preached a lie."22
Lincoln biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: "In a merely forensic sense, it was indeed a battle of giants. In the whole field of American politics, no man has equaled Douglas in the expedients and strategy of debate. Lacking originality and constructive logic, he had great facility in appropriating by ingenious restatement the thoughts and formulas of others. He was tireless, ubiquitous, unseizable. It would have been as easy to hold a globule of mercury under the finger's tip as to fasten him to a point he desired to evade. He could almost invert a proposition by a plausible paraphrase. He delighted in enlarging an opponent's assertion to a forced inference ridiculous in form and monstrous in dimensions. In spirit he was alert, combative, aggressive; in manner, patronizing and arrogant by turns."23
Historian Gerald M. Capers wrote: "On the whole Douglas's methods on the stump were typical rather than original. He gesticulated so wildly that his clothes became disheveled; he wore himself into a frenzy. He used invective and sarcasm upon his opponents but unlike Lincoln apparently he never told jokes."24 Capers wrote: "Certainly his outstanding attribute – the one which contributed most to his own success and that of the party – was the oratorical power and skill debate which brought him his initial fame."25
Historian William E. Barton wrote: "When Douglas began this campaign, his rich smooth voice was clear. In the closing addresses he was so hoarse that it was difficult for him to be heard. His flow of words was so continuous and unhesitating, his method of approach was so direct, and his personality was so pleasing, he was listened with great satisfaction. Lincoln had a thin tenor voice that was almost a falsetto. It had good carrying power, and better wearing qualities than the rich baritone of Douglas, but it was not so pleasing or impressive. Audiences were uniformly impressed with the fact that little man had the big voice, and the big man had the little voice. The grace and self-confidence of Douglass made all the more apparent the awkwardness of Lincoln, and the difficulty which he sometimes encountered of getting his address under way. But when he had fairly got into his subject, Lincoln was no longer constrained or awkward. Not only was his great stature impressive, but there was a certain fine dignity in his vas proportions and a convincing quality in his method of argument."26
Nicolay and Hay, the two erstwhile aides to President Lincoln, wrote: "Lincoln's mental equipment was of an entirely different order. His principal weapon was direct, unswerving logic. His fairness of statement and generosity of admission had long been proverbial. For these intellectual duels with Douglas, he possessed a power of analysis that easily outran and circumvented the 'Little Giant's most extraordinary gymnastics of argument. But, disdaining mere quibbles, he pursued lines of concise reasoning to maxims of constitutional law and political morals. Douglas was always forcible in statement and bold in assertion; but Lincoln was his superior in quaint originality, aptness of phrase, and subtlety of definition; and oftentimes Lincoln's philosophic vision and poetical fervor raised him to flights of eloquence which were not possible to the fiber and temper of his opponent."
Contemporary Francis Grierson wrote: "Lincoln's presence infused into the mixed and uncertain throng something spiritual and supernormal. His looks, his words, his voice, his attitude, were like a magical essence dropped into the seething cauldron of politics, reacting against the foam, calming the surface and letting the people see to the bottom. It did not take him long."27
Lincoln biographer John T. Morse, Jr., wrote "We cannot leave these speeches without a word concerning their literary quality. In them we might have looked for vigor that would be a little uncouth, wit that would be often coarse, a logic generally sound but always clumsy, – in a word, tolerably good substance and very poor form. We are surprised, then, to find many and high excellences in art."28 However, wrote Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell, "There is another feature of the debates which those who use well the guidebook will notice and that is that Douglas had practically one speech, but that no two of Lincoln's speeches were alike. This was so nearly true that the stenographers would stop taking notes when Douglas reached certain points in his address..."29
Lincoln chronicler Herbert Mitgang: "As the candidates moved from town to town, making other speeches in addition to the joint debates, their arguments hardened. This was the high point of stump oratory in the United States; one man's voice spellbound thousands, including hecklers, for hours. Lincoln's platform style seemed tailored to the mood; it was informal and reasonable and yet coldly logical and legalistic."30
On the other hand, Historian James G. Randall wrote: "As to forensics the canvass can hardly be said to have exhibited the purest technique. In a genuine procedure of debate each speaker would have taken a position opposite to his opponent's, stuck to the question, shaped the argument as a progressive unfolding of the main issues, noted what was said by the opposite speaker, and, since the senatorship was at stake, would have shown the people how, on matters likely to come before the Senate, he would have taken a stand contrary to that of his rival. For the debate to have had significance the contestants would also have been expected to enter upon the practical and substantial results of their contrary positions." Randall wrote: "Instead of that in the case of Lincoln and Douglas, the two men seemed to differ while actually agreeing on many points, dragged red herrings over the trail, indulged in misrepresentations, hurled taunts, introduced extraneous matter, repeated the same statements from place to place with little regard by one debater for what the other had said, and seemed often more interested in casting reproach upon party opponents than in clarifying the issues."31
Historian Stephen Oates noted that Mr. Lincoln "complained bitterly that race was not the issue between him and Douglas. The issue was whether slavery would ultimately triumph or ultimately perish in the United States. But Douglas understood the depth of anti-Negro feeling in Illinois, and he hoped to whip Lincoln by playing on white racial fears. And so he kept warning white crowds: Do you want Negroes to flood into Illinois, cover the prairies with black settlements, and eat, sleep, and marry with white people? If you do, then vote for Lincoln and the 'Black Republicans.'"32
Mr. Lincoln also complained bitterly about the way that Douglas twisted, manipulated and misrepresented the truth about statements made by himself and others. The tactic was clear from the outset at the Ottawa debate when Senator misrepresented Mr. Lincoln's representation at a convention that didn't meet and Mr. Lincoln didn't attend and which didn't issue the resolutions which Douglas said that had been issued. At virtually every debate, Mr. Lincoln spent much of his allotted time refuting Douglas's statements and demonstrating the shady foundations of his veracity.
Senator Douglas and Mr. Lincoln "attracted to them immense crowds, wherever they appeared; and the whole nation looked on with an intense interest. There has never been a local canvass since the formation of the government which so attracted the attention of the politicians of other states as this. It was the key not of the coming presidential campaign. It was a thorough presentation of the issues upon which the next national battle was to be fought. The eyes of all the eastern states were turned to the west where young republicans and old democracy were establishing the dividing lines of the two parties, and preparing the ground for the great struggle soon to be begun," wrote contemporary biographer Josiah G. Holland.33
On the other hand, according to Douglas biographer Robert W. Johannsen: "While the seven joint debates added a new dimension to Douglas' campaign, they elicited few arguments that had not already been expressed or that were not being expressed in many individual appearances. Lincoln's attacks and charges were more keenly felt and required more immediate response, although they were still some Republicans who felt that Lincoln was not using his opportunity to full advantage."34
Lincoln scholar Roy P. Basler wrote: "Nowhere is this tendency to subordinate a contemporary figure to an aggrandized Lincoln more apparent than in the story of the Great Debates. Even the best biographers have tended to give Lincoln a heavy verdict in the arguments, and the more idolatrous have pictured him as literally demolishing his great competitor. Nothing could be farther from the truth, except, perhaps, the view that Douglas routed Lincoln, which one finds occasionally in those bitter partisan diatribes that seek to make Lincoln at once the villain and the ignoramus. Of this stubborn myth George Fort Milton disposes fairly in The Eve of Conflict (1934). Subjecting it to proper tests, he concludes that
the Lincoln of the debates stand revealed as a strong antagonist at grips with one quite as strong. At times both men seem political wrestlers crafty in verbal clutches, who spent much time in fumbling about for or escaping from effective holds. Alt times Lincoln was evasive and unresponsive; at times he indulged in unjustified personal aspersions, often he was candid – and occasionally not; occasionally Douglas met him on the same plane. There is no escaping the fact that Lincoln was an adroit and ambitious politician who never forgot that he was after Douglas's Senate.35
The written record of the debates was as important as the verbal impact. Lincoln biographer William E. Barton noted: "The political newspaper of Chicago made elaborate preparations for the reporting and printing of the speech. The Press and Tribune, now the Tribune, employed Horace White and Robert R. Hitt as its reporters, and the Times employed Henry Binmore and James B. Sheridan. These were four competent reporters. There was a considerable variation in the reports. The outdoor surroundings, the variable winds, the jostling crowds, the noise and inadequate facilities in the way of tables, made accurate reports difficult; and it must be acknowledged that each side reported its own candidate more carefully than the other."36
The debates were important to the spectators as well as the speakers. They were social as well as political events. Historians William and Bruce Catton wrote that "the people who flocked to hear Lincoln and Douglas were well informed on political issues and they did not take these issues lightly. The came, primarily, to affirm or reexamine these issues lightly. They came, primarily, to affirm or reexamine party loyalties, to hear and weigh the opposing sides of a question that genuinely troubled them to see for themselves which of these able, forceful, oddly-matched contestants had the better case. They came, too, out of plain curiosity, reflecting a measure of grass-roots interest in politics for its own sake that no succeeding generation would equal."37
Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell wrote: "A striking feature of the crowds was the number of women they included. The intelligent and lively interest they took in the debates caused much comment. No doubt Mrs. Douglas's presence had something to do with this. They were particularly active in receiving the speakers, and at Quincy, Lincoln, on being presented with what the local press described as a 'beautiful and elegant bouquet,' took pains to express his gratification at the part women everywhere took in the contest."38
Another woman, Mary Todd Lincoln, had a particular interest in the course of the debates and she attended the final debate at Alton with her eldest son, Robert. Mary Todd Lincoln's niece, Katherine Helm, recalled "Mary was filled with indignation when anyone presumed to say her husband was an Abolitionist, especially after Lincoln himself had repudiated such an idea. She read and applauded all of Lincoln's speeches in this debate. 'How foolish,' she cried, 'for Douglas to think that because you demand justice for the negro you are in favor of abolition or that you would ever, in any event, countenance social equality with a race so far inferior to your own. He is insolent,' she cried."39
Blaine Brooks Gernon wrote in Lincoln in the Political Circus: "Thus closed the debates, which made the contestants better to the state and nation. In this campaign Douglas made 130 speeches and spent $50,000; while Lincoln, making almost as many addresses, spent but little – for he had nothing. If the principals ran the campaign with good humor, it cannot be said that their followers were always so scrupulous."40