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The Main Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

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In 1858, as the country drew ever nearer to disunion, two politicians from Illinois pulled in the consideration and attracted the attention of a nation. From August 21 up until October 15, Stephen Douglas battled Abraham Lincoln in a series of face to face debates around the state. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a series and progression of formal political debates between the challenger, Abraham Lincoln, and the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas, in a campaign for one of Illinois’ two United States Senate seats. In spite of the fact that Lincoln lost the election, the debates propelled him into national prominence which in the long run prompted his election as President of the United States. At the time, Stephen Douglas had been the incumbent, however, in an attempt to take the seat of Lincoln then challenged Douglas to a series and progression of debates. Despite the fact that the precise arrangement of the debates were somewhat not the same as the Lincoln-Douglas of today (in those days the first speaker represented an hour or 60 minutes, the second had an hour and a half or 90 minute counter, and afterward the main speaker had a 30 minute rebuttal/time for closing arguments) the adversarial idea of the debates were comparative.

Abraham Lincoln was chosen by the Republicans to challenge Douglas for the Senate seat. Upon accepting the nomination given to him, Lincoln gave his well-known “House divided” speech. “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or the other”. As mentioned in his speech, Lincoln argued that the country cannot possibly go on living half-free and half-slave. It either has to become entirely slave, or entirely free. Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of seven debates in seven different citites throughout seven different states, the first being, Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858, second, Freeport, Illinois, August 27, 1858, third, Jonesboro, Illinois, September 15, 1858, fourth, Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858, fifth, Galesburg, Illinois, October 7, 1858, sixth, Quincy, Illinois, October 13, 1858, and seventh, Alton, Illinois, October 15, 1858. At that time, the state legislatures elected the U.S. senators and not the citizens of the state.

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In the second debate, what became known as the Freeport Doctrine, Douglas answered that whatever the Supreme Court chose was not as significant as the actions of the citizens. Lincoln asked Douglas if slavery could be limited in spite of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling. Douglas answered yes to his statement. Douglas was an advocate of popular sovereignty or the belief that individuals living in a territory should decide if that territory should be free or slave can go against the ruling. It was, he stated, a sacred right of self-government. Lincoln called attention to that Douglas’ position directly tested the Dred Scott choice, which decreed that the citizens of a certain territory had no such power. In his speech, he stated, “I answer emphatically, as Mr. Lincoln has heard me answer a hundred times from every stump in Illinois, that in my opinion the people of a Territory can, by lawful means, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State constitution”. In short, Douglas said the territories and states can pass laws that defy the federal government. On the off chance that a territory wouldn’t have slavery, no laws, no Supreme Court ruling, would force them to permit it. This sentiment would be taken as disloyalty and betrayal to numerous southern Democrats and would cause issues down the road for Douglas in his bid to become President in the election of 1860.

As a result, Douglas wins the election in 1858 and the Democratic Part is further split along sectional lines. The south had then distrusted Douglas. In 1860, Douglas does not win a single southern state except for Missouri, which was a border state. Lincoln becomes well-known nationally and became one of the frontrunners for the 1860 Republican nomination, which he won.

Now, Lincoln-Douglas debates are competitive speaking activities that involves two debaters arguing for and against a resolution that is selected by the NFL (National Forensics League) and voted on by coaches. Today, somewhat like the old debates, LD focuses on the conflicting values of social and philosophical issues, for example, by examining questions of morality, justice, democracy, etc. Typically, LD debates concern themselves with deciding whether or not certain actions, or states of affairs, are good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral.

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The Main Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from
“The Main Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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