Some of the Historical Background to the Lincoln -- Douglas Debates
THE Lincoln-Douglas debates are quite naturally identified, above all, with the seven joint debates of the summer and fall of 1858, which were the most sensational feature of the great senatorial campaign. And yet if we attend to the actual dialectical exchanges, the joint debates will be seen to be only a part of a much longer series of argumentative encounters. For the beginning of this larger debate we must go back to the Illinois state fair in Springfield in the first week of October 1854. Douglas spoke there on the third of the month, reviewing his arguments, now familiar to the whole country, defending the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had become law the previous spring and which had, by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, renewed the pro- and anti-slavery convulsions of the year 1850. Lincoln replied to this speech on the following day, October 4, 1854. The same speech was repeated by Lincoln on the evening of the sixteenth of the month at Peoria, Illinois, where Douglas had spoken in the afternoon. It is from the text delivered at Peoria that the printed version was taken, and for this reason it has passed into history as the Peoria speech. It is the longest of all Lincoln's pre-presidential speeches and a more complete statement of his position in the controversy with Douglas than is to be found in any other single deliverance. It is noteworthy that he frequently quoted from it, and more frequently paraphrased it, in the joint debates, and it is the primary source for an understanding of Lincoln's position throughout the period 1854-61. Of the great Lincoln speeches which precede the campaign of 1858, the next in importance to the Peoria speech is the one on the Dred Scott decision. It, too, was delivered in Springfield, June 26, 1857. But it, too, is a direct reply to a speech Douglas had made in the same place two weeks earlier, when Lincoln had -- as was his custom -- sat in Douglas's audience.