Lincoln-Douglas debates marred by overt racism

When Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas arrived in dry and dusty Ottawa, Illinois, on Aug. 21, 1858, for the first of their seven great debates, their campaigns for the Senate were consumed by the great national struggle over slavery. 

A large press corps covered the debates, which were big news across the nation and established Lincoln’s national reputation. The new technology of the telegraph sent verbatim transcripts of the long debates to newspapers everywhere.

This recreation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates is part of GJR’s 1857 Project. The project retells the history of slavery, segregation and race in St. Louis, Missouri, and Illinois. Its name comes from the watershed moment when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision denying the humanity of African Americans. The following year Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Stephen Douglas debated the freedom and equality of black Americans in a prelude to the Civil War.  The project was inspired by Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer prize winning 1619 Project in the New York Times Magazine and is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

When the debates began, Douglas, “the little Giant,” was a leading national figure who had engineered the great compromises of the 1850s designed to keep the nation from a war over slavery. Lincoln was a lesser known politician who emerged from the debates as a rising figure in the Republican Party. Two years later he was president and the Civil War had begun.

Douglas championed “popular sovereignty,” the idea that territories wanting to become states should be able to decide whether to enter the Union slave or free. He led passage of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which adopted popular sovereignty. That brought with it the possibility that slavery would be extended to states north of the southern border of Missouri – negating the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that had barred slavery north of Missouri’s southern border – 36-30 north. 

(Illustration by Steve Edwards)

The Compromise of 1850 included the Fugitive Slave law that required federal officers to turn over black people to any white person claiming ownership, without allowing the black people to testify they were free. Hatred of the Fugitive Slave law in the North was fueled by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Douglas also supported the 1857 Dred Scott ruling that two Missouri enslaved people, Dred and Harriet Scott, did not become free when taken into free states such as Illinois. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that the Scotts could not sue for their freedom because black people “are not included and were not intended to be included under the word citizens in the Constitution.”

The decision also held that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because Congress couldn’t bar slavery in the territories. Any law taking away a slaveowner’s property right was an unconstitutional violation of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause, Taney wrote.

Six topics came up again and again during the debates:

– Whether the Declaration of Independence’s promise that all men are created equal included Negroes. Douglas said no, Lincoln yes.

– Whether Negroes should have equal legal rights to whites. Douglas said no; Lincoln said no but Douglas didn’t believe him.

– Whether the Founding Fathers meant the nation to remain half slave and half free forever. Douglas said yes, Lincoln said they expected it to eventually disappear.

– Whether the Dred Scott decision had to be obeyed in stating that Negroes were not people under the Constitution. Douglas said yes; Lincoln said no.

– Whether the territories should be able to decide whether to have slavery. Douglas said yes, Lincoln said no.

– Whether Lincoln’s House Divided prediction inevitably meant war or not. Douglas said it did; Lincoln said slavery could gradually disappear.

A ‘Negro colony’ with 100,000 freed Missouri slaves

As the Ottawa debate began around 2 p.m., Douglas whipped up his audience’s fears of being overrun by hundreds of thousands of free blacks from Missouri and being turned into a “Negro colony.” Here are Douglas’ words, complete with the crowd reaction. 

We are told by Lincoln that he is utterly opposed to the Dred Scott decision, and will not submit to it, for the reason that he says it deprives the negro of the rights and privileges of citizenship. (Laughter and applause.) …I ask you, are you in favor of conferring upon the negro the rights and privileges of citizenship? (“No, no.”) Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, (“never,”) and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, (“no, no,”) in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? (“Never,” “no.”) 

Back to Africa – ‘We cannot…make them equals’

Lincoln in his homespun way acknowledged Douglas’ national stature.“I know the Judge is a great man, while I am only a small man,’ he said to laughter.

Lincoln, as a congressman, had fought against the popular sovereignty compromises Douglas had passed through Congress. And he opposed the Dred Scott decision as contrary to the Declaration of Independence’s promise that All Men are Created equal. 

On the June day the Republican Party nominated him as its candidate against Douglas, Lincoln gave his famous House Divided speech in Springfield.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

During the debates later that summer and fall, Douglas attacked the speech again and again, saying Lincoln was setting the country on the course toward civil war. Lincoln denied it but was on the defensive when explaining what he would do if enslaved people were freed.

In language hard to read today, Lincoln denied that blacks were equals and spoke of sending them back to Africa, a scheme he later pursued in the White House. Lincoln said this at Ottawa:

My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia-to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition?…Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals.

But Lincoln saw the Dred Scott decision and Douglas’ popular sovereignty as part of a “conspiracy” to perpetuate slavery throughout the country. He warned that just as the Dred Scott decision had ruled the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and said slavery could not be banned in the territories, a second Dred Scott decision could say slavery could not be banned in the already established states.

There was much discussion during the debates of an editorial in the Washington Union newspaper that had concluded the emancipation of slaves in the North had been an outrage on the property rights of slave owners and that the Dred Scott decision supported the property rights of slaveholders everywhere.

Lincoln said the late Sen. Henry Clay, the great compromiser from Kentucky who had sought to avoid a civil war, had favored eventual emancipation as the inevitable result of Revolutionary War principles. Lincoln said:

Henry Clay once said of a class of men who would repress all tendencies to liberty and ultimate emancipation, that they must, if they would do this, go back to the era of our Independence, and muzzle the cannon which thunders its annual joyous return; they must blow out the moral lights around us; they must penetrate the human soul, and eradicate there the love of liberty; and then, and not till then, could they perpetuate slavery in this country! [Loud cheers.] To my thinking, Judge Douglas is, by his example and vast influence, doing that very thing in this community, [cheers,] when he says that the negro has nothing in the Declaration of Independence.

Freeport Doctrine

The second debate in Freeport at the end of August was a turning point after Lincoln backed Douglas into a corner. How could popular sovereignty exist if the Dred Scott decision said territories could not bar slavery, Lincoln asked. Douglas said even if new state constitutions could not ban slavery, new states could refuse to pass police laws enforcing slavery? Douglas’ answer became known as the Freeport Doctrine.

But even though Douglas’ Freeport Doctrine pleased enough Illinois and northern Democrats to win the Senate race, it angered southern Democrats and split the Democratic Party in the 1860 election because the southerners thought it weakened slavery. Northern Democrats backed Douglas and southern Democrats John C. Breckinridge. 

The Lincoln-Douglas Senate race preceded the popular election of senators. Lincoln won the popular vote by 7 %, but lost the legislative vote by the same margin – 54-36. Douglas went back to Washington.

Two years later Lincoln won an electoral college landslide with just 40 percent of the popular vote. Missouri was the only state Douglas won outright. Before Lincoln’s inauguration the South had seceded. Lincoln’s prediction about a House Divided and Douglas’ of a civil war were both coming to pass.

Editor’s note: Below is a recreation of the atmosphere surrounding the debates by Southern Illinois University Carbondale student Kayla Chamness, based on research at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.








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