The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858

While campaigning for the United States Senate seat for Illinois in 1858, Abraham Lincoln challenged incumbent Stephen Douglas to a series of debates. These debates were to be held in each of the Congressional Districts in the state. At the time there were nine districts in Illinois, but it was decided that the debates would only be held in seven of the nine since each candidate had already spoken publicly in both Springfield and Chicago.

All seven events took place between August 21 and October 15. Although the election was an Illinois state election, these debates drew the attention of the entire nation. In 1858, the US was divided on the issues of slavery and states' rights. Douglas and Lincoln held opposing opinions regarding these issues. Douglas was a supporter of Popular Sovereignty, that the will of the people is how laws should be determined. He believed that each state had a right to determine the legality of slavery within that state. Douglas argued that giving the federal government the right to control slavery, state's rights and individual liberties would also become restricted. He believed that local self-government is what made the Union strong.

Lincoln, in contrast, believed that the US could not continue to exist with some slave-states and some free-states. He foresaw the spread of slavery under Popular Sovereignty, not the reduction. He also strongly believed that it was morally wrong for one human to own another. Although he didn't believe in equality among the races, he did believe that the nation would fail to thrive while it was divided on the issue of slavery. Because the issued being debated in Illinois were the same issues being faced by politicians throughout the rest of the country, coverage of the debates was intense. Newspapers made it possible for the nation to follow the debates and subsequently increased Lincoln's national notoriety.

Although Lincoln did well in the debates, Douglas inevitably won the Illinois Senate seat. However, it is often said that Lincoln was actually the real winner. Because of the national recognition that he gained through these debates, Lincoln easily secured the Republican nomination in the 1860 presidential election. The Lincoln-Douglas debates consisted of a one hour speech by one candidate, followed by rebuttal that lasted an hour and a half, and ended with a final response from the first speaker that lasted a half an hour.

Although the length of speeches has been shortened, the Lincoln-Douglas debate format remains the most popular style for competitive debates. It is also frequently used in political debates. This debate style is often used when one primary issue is being debated. The significance of the Lincoln-Douglas debates can be seen through history. Although Douglas went on the win the election, his stance on the slavery issue alienated him and ultimately weakened his power in the Senate. Lincoln, on the other hand, benefited greatly from his response in the debate. He gained national recognition, enabling him to win the presidency in 1860 that ultimately led to the abolition of slavery in all states.