A Legacy of Excellence: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

By Holzer, Harold | American Heritage, October 1996 | Go to article overview

A Legacy of Excellence: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates


Holzer, Harold, American Heritage


"The prairies are on fire." So did an awestruck Easterner describe the political inferno that engulfed Illinois in 1858

That year, a pugnacious two-term Democratic senator who hated African-Americans far more than he hated slavery and a tall, coolly logical Republican challenger who believed slavery an evil whose spread must be arrested met face-to-face for the most famous war of words in American history: the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

They met seven times, in village squares, county fairgrounds, college campuses, and vacant lots, as enthralled crowds as large as 20,000 cheered the lifetime archrivals on. The voices of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas stirred a nation.

Modern American voters would hardly recognize such events. Today's political debates are usually staged in television studios. They are tightly moderated by journalists, who limit candidates' answers to a few minutes each and discourage audience response. Observers attend by invitation only.

In comparison, the Lincoln-Douglas debates took place outdoors. in both broiling summer heat and gusty autumn chill. No limits were placed on attendance. Onlookers poured in; they enjoyed parades and marching bands, ate picnic lunches, drank to excess, picked fights with strangers, and generally shouted themselves hoarse.

The debates combined the spectacle of the Fourth of July with the excitement of stemwinding political oratory. Each lasted an exhausting three hours. The opening speaker addressed the crowd for 60 minutes, usually without notes. Then his rival offered a 90-minute reply. Finally the opening speaker returned for a 30-minute rejoinder.

Partisans who thronged these events interrupted the speakers to cheer or jeer, laughing at Douglas's withering sarcasm, roaring at Lincoln's droll stories. And when they weren't making noise with their voices, onlookers set off cannons to punctuate each speaker's best "hits." Here was American politics at its rambunctious best.

What made these events historic as well as spectacular was the explosive issue on which they focused -- and of course the two brilliant leaders who addressed it.

Stephen Arnold Douglas had served twelve years in the U.S. Senate. He was the father of "popular sovereignty," which allowed voters in each new national territory to vote on slavery for themselves. Douglas believed Northerners would never cast ballots for bondage, while the "democratic" addition of slave territory in the South would prevent disunion.

Abraham Lincoln had spent but one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Enactment of popular sovereignty in 1854 "aroused" him back into politics, and he helped launch Illinois's new anti-slavery Republican party. In June of 1858 he accepted its nomination to oppose Douglas, arguing memorably, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Lincoln challenged Douglas to meet him one-on-one in "the old western style" -- to share platforms with him at as many as 100 "joint meetings." The proposal enraged Douglas, who had already set his schedule. But by dodging Lincoln he would brand himself a coward and commit political suicide.

The incumbent accepted, but with conditions. Douglas would get more opening and closing speeches. He would choose the venues. And he would debate only seven times, not 100, as Lincoln had hoped. This time Lincoln had no choice but to accept. Debates were set for the towns of Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton.

The stage was set. But neither candidate could have predicted the wild enthusiasm that greeted them both at their first meeting on August 21.

"Men, women and children, old, and young," one eyewitness observed, kicked up so much dust in Ottawa the village resembled "a vast smoke house." No major metropolis, marveled another observer, ever "boiled with madder enthusiasm."

Nor did the debate itself disappoint.

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