Lincoln Landmark - the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858

The Debates were a series of seven between Republican Abraham Lincoln and incumbent Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, for an Illinois seat in the United States Senate. Since Senators were elected by state legislatures, Lincoln and Douglas were campaigning for their respective parties to win control of the Illinois legislature. The debates previewed the issues that the nation would face in the Presidential election of 1860. The main issue discussed was slavery, particularly its role in the territories and impending states.

Lincoln’s verbal response to Stephen Douglas’s speech on the previous day, in Chicago.

7/10/1858  I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that Declaration is not the truth, let us get the statute book, in which we find it and tear it out! Who is so bold to do it! If it is not true let us tear it out! Let us stick to it then, let us stand firmly by it then.  LL 229


From Lincoln’s notes in preparation for the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. 

8/1858  …Judge Douglas’s present course by no means lessens my belief in the existence of a purpose to make slavery alike lawful in all the States. This can be done by a Supreme Court decision holding that the United States Constitution forbids a State to exclude slavery; and probably it can be done in no other way… Slavery can only become extinct by being restricted to its present limits & dwindling out.  FT 53,54


Lincoln attacked the combined effects of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Supreme Court deciding the legality of slavery, in Ottawa, IL

8/21/1858  In the first place what is necessary to make the institution [of slavery] national? Not war. There is no danger that the people of Kentucky will shoulder their muskets and with a young n….r stuck on every bayonet march into Illinois and force them upon us. There is no danger of our going over there and making war on them. Then what is necessary for the nationalization of slavery? It is simply the next Dred Scott decision. It is merely for the Supreme Court to decide that no state under the Constitution can exclude it, just as they have already decided that under the Constitution neither Congress nor the territorial legislature can do it. When that is decided and acquiesced in, the whole thing is done.  LL 249


Lincoln allows he would accept state sovereignty at the debate in Freeport, IL

8/27/1858  In regard to the other question of whether I am pledged to the admission of any more slave states into the Union, I state to you very frankly that I would be exceedingly sorry ever to be put in a position of having to pass upon that question.


I should be exceedingly glad to know that there would never be another slave state admitted into the Union; but I must add, that if slavery shall be kept out of the territories during the territorial existence of any one given territory, and then the people shall, having a fair chance and clean field, when they come to adopt the constitution, un-influenced by the actual presence of the institution among them, I see no alternative if we own the country, but to admit them into the Union.  LL 254-5

Lincoln clarifies his racial views at the debate in Charleston, IL

9/18/1858 …An elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people…I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people, and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race…  FT 57

Lincoln on the wrongness & the extinction of slavery, Lincoln-Douglas debate, Quincy, IL

10/13/1858  We have in this nation this element of domestic slavery…that difference of opinion, reduced to its lowest terms, is no other than the difference between men who think slavery a wrong and those who do not think it a wrong…we think it wrong—we think it is a moral, and social and a political wrong. We think it is a wrong not confining itself merely to the persons or the states where it exists, but that it is a wrong in its tendency, to say the least, that extends itself to the existence of the whole nation. Because we think it wrong, we propose a course of policy that shall deal with it as a wrong. We deal with it as with any other wrong, in so far as we can prevent its growing any larger, and so deal with it that in the run of time there may be some promise of an end to it. We have a due regard to the actual presence of it amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and all the constitutional obligations thrown about it… we have no right at all to disturb it in the states where it exists, and we profess that we have no more inclination to disturb it than we have the right to do it…We also oppose it as an evil so far as it seeks to spread itself. We insist on the policy that shall restrict it to its present limits. We don’t suppose that in doing this we violate anything due to the actual presence of the institution, or anything due to the constitutional guarantees thrown around it.  LL 274-5


   …when the fathers of the government cut off the source of slavery by the abolition of the slave trade [enacted after 20 years, 1808], and adopted a system of restricting it from the new Territories where it had not existed [Northwest Territories in 1787, confirmed by Congress in 1789], I maintain that they placed it where they understood, and all sensible men understood, it was in the course of ultimate extinction…  FT 60


Lincoln contended the nation’s founders planned for slavery’s demise, at the debate in Alton, IL

10/15/1858 …three years ago there had never been a man, so far as I knew or believed, in the whole world, who had said that the Declaration of Independence did not include negroes in the term ‘all men.’…

   When this new principle—this new proposition that no human being ever thought of three years ago, is brought forward, I combat it as having a tendency to dehumanize the negro—to take away from him the right of ever striving to be a man. I combat it as being one of the thousand things constantly done in these days to prepare the public mind to make property, and nothing but property of the negro in all the States of this Union…

   …[in the Constitution] there is no mention of the word ‘negro’ or of slavery… Language is used not suggesting that slavery existed or that the black race were among us. And I understand the contemporaneous history of those times to be that covert language was used with a purpose, and that purpose was that in our Constitution, which it was hoped and is still hoped will endure forever—when it should be read by intelligent and patriotic men, after the institution of slavery had passed from among us—there should be nothing on the face of the great charter of liberty suggesting that such a thing as negro slavery had ever existed among us…When I say that I want to see the further spread of it arrested…that it is the course of ultimate extinction, I only say I desire to see it placed where they [this country’s fathers] placed it.


   It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.  FT 60-67

A summary of Lincoln’s posture and intent at the last debate in Springfield, IL

10/30/1858 …Through all, I have neither assailed, nor wrestled with any part of the constitution. The legal right of the Southern people to reclaim their fugitives I have constantly admitted. The legal right of Congress to interfere with their institution in the states, I have constantly denied. In resisting the spread of slavery into new territory, and with that, what appears to me to be a tendency to subvert the first principle of free government itself, my whole effort has consisted. To the best of my judgment I have labored for, and not against the Union. As I have not felt, so I have not expressed any harsh sentiment towards our Southern brethren. I have constantly declared, as I really believed, the only difference between them and us, is the difference of circumstances.  FT 67-68

Following Lincoln’s defeat for US Senator from Illinois, he wrote a letter to H. Asbury about why he lost, that problems were imminent, and exhorted to press on for the cause.

11/19/1858  …The fight must go on. The cause of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one, or even, one hundred defeats. Douglas had the ingenuity to be supported in the late contest both as the best means to break down, and to uphold the slave interest. No ingenuity can keep those antagonistic elements in harmony long. Another explosion will soon come… LL 286