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Lincoln-Douglas Debates

History and Significance of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

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In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican running for the Illinois seat in the US Senate against incumbent Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of seven debates in various Illinois cities. These debates occurred between August 21 and October 15, 1858. The debates became highly publicized with newspapers across the United States reprinting them for their readers. Unlike the typical debates of today's candidates, the format of these debates allowed for one candidate to speak for 60 minutes, the other for 90, and then the first candidate to respond for an additional 30 minutes.

Slavery and the Debates

While many topics were discussed in these debates, the one which caused the most contention was that of slavery. Douglas was a Democrat who had supported the Dred Scott decision which equated slaves to property. He argued that Lincoln was an abolitionist who hoped to end slavery altogether. He used fear to fight against Lincoln claiming that if he won then freed blacks would end up moving to Illinois and taking jobs from whites.

Lincoln argued that while he wanted to end the extension of slavery into US territories, he was not fighting for political or social equality for blacks. Lincoln was then able to place Douglas in a no-win political position by forcing him to explain his support of popular sovereignty. Douglas did so in what is known as the Freeport Doctrine.

The Freeport Doctrine

Douglas basically explained in the Freeport Doctrine his belief that the people in a new territory should be able to decide whether or not they would allow slavery. This position pleased few in his party. Southern Democrats were upset with this because it allowed for the abolition of slavery. On the other hand, antislavery forces in the Democratic Party were unhappy because slavery could be further extended.

Results of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Douglas ended up defeating Lincoln in the Senate race. At that time, senators were chosen by state legislatures and the Democrats were able to take control of the Illinois legislature. However, Lincoln was able to take this defeat and turn it into victory two years later. He took the transcripts of the debates and published them in book form. The national attention on the debates brought him to the attention of the Republican Party and garnered him the nomination to run for president in 1860. Yet again, he faced Stephen Douglas running for the Southern Democratic party. However, this time the divisions amongst the Democratic Party over slavery and other issues worked in Lincoln's favor and he defeated Douglas and the other two candidates who were up against him: Northern Democrat John C. Breckinridge and Constitutional Unionist, John Bell.

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