Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

28

Second Debate With Stephen A. Douglas
At Freeport, Illinois:
CW, 3:39–42

Lincoln sought to dispel charges that he supported abolitionism by responding to questions on seven controversial slavery issues that Senator Douglas posed soon after their first debate. The provocatively phrased questions intended to trap Lincoln and either expose his radicalism, making him unpopular with the electorate, or depict him as endorsing Democratic positions and, thus, undercut support in his own party. Indeed, his steadfast insistence that the federal government must enforce the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law led the great abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips to label Lincoln the “slave-hound of Illinois.” Nevertheless, Lincoln remained consistent with his previously held views and unwavering in his support even for the most controversial aspects of the 1850 Compromise. After these brief responses, he elaborated upon his answers to emphasize his belief in the constitutional power of the Congress to legislate on slavery for the District of Columbia and the territories, but without ignoring white opinion. He avoided saying anything meaningful about the interstate slave trade. The most important consequence of the second debate, however, remains Lincoln's selection of a key issue related to the Dred Scott decision, the theoretical right of territories to exclude slavery, as a stratagem to ensnare his opponent. Lincoln had been told by key advisers that Douglas had put him on the defensive during the first debate. At Freeport, he attempted to reverse this posture and pin Douglas down on his well-known advocacy of “popular sovereignty.” Did the people of a territory have the right, he asked, to vote down slavery before that territory adopted a state constitution? Douglas answered, with qualification, in the affirmative. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, he stated, permitted the status of slavery in territories to be settled by the inhabitants and not

-137-

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