Raucous Debates That Led to a Presidency

Article excerpt


The 1858 Senate race in Illinois featured two very different cuts of men: Stephen Douglas, a powerful, well-connected incumbent, who was a major figure in the nation's capital, and Abraham Lincoln, a well respected local lawyer who had compiled a long list of electoral defeats.

Lincoln was denied the 1854 election to the Senate which seemed rightfully his, and he was forced to throw his support to the anti-slavery Democratic candidate Lyman Trumbull who eventually won the seat.

Thus, the new Republican Party reluctantly had to pay a debt it owed to the former Whig politician, and Lincoln got his chance. Unfortunately, he had to go up against the popular Stephen Douglas. But Douglas did not underestimate Lincoln, calling him an able, articulate and honorable foe.

After having given up political ambitions in the late 1840s, Lincoln came back into the arena after Douglas' attempt to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 which would have opened up more territories to the probability of slave-holding in the territorial states. Lincoln had argued for years that slavery was a moral wrong, protected by the Constitution, which would eventually wither up. Now that view was no longer likely.

Then in 1856, the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case held that no state could prohibit the right of a slave-owner to settle in any area of the nation. Slaves were property and had no more rights than pigs or cows. Douglas had argued that popular sovereignty or majority democratic rule, should govern which territories became slave and which would be free. But Dred Scott trumped popular sovereignty.

To Lincoln it was a conspiracy of Chief Justice Roger Taney, President James Buchanan and Stephen Douglas to allow the unbridled expansion of slavery everywhere in the United States. In accepting the nomination for the Senate, Lincoln made the inflammatory statement that a "house divided against itself can not stand" - the nation will be either totally slave or free, a quote from the Bible which he had used before as early as 1843.

It was a powerful moral challenge and surely reflected his deepest sentiments. But it gave his opponents in the campaign a major issue to attack him relentlessly. Douglas was substantially ahead in his campaign for re-election.

In those days, U.S. senators were chosen by the state legislatures not by direct popular vote. So the composition of the legislature was critical, and apportionment or malapportionment was a major determinant in victory. Lincoln's handlers found that his House Divided speech would harm him, especially in the middle section of Illinois where old time Whig voters were predominant.

Lincoln, who was an old line Whig all of his adult life, was now branded as a radical and an abolitionist interested in racial assimilation. Almost out of despair, the Republican leaders got Douglas to agree to seven debates across the state. …