In the modern era Presidential debates are highly structured affairs in which both parties vie for every advantage. The history of Presidential debates is rather short with the first known debate to be between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy during the 1960 Presidential campaign.
Debates were rather more common during 19th century American political contests. Without mass media to advertise their message, candidates often went on the road to debate in front of large crowds of appreciative voters who flocked to listen to their arguments.
Perhaps, the pinnacle of political debates in the United States took place during the 1858 campaign for the Senate seat from Illinois between the Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln and the incumbent Democrat Senator Stephen A. Douglas. The debates were a series of seven contests that took place between August 21st and October 15th.
A word of explanation is required for readers to understand the complete circumstances surrounding the contest for the Senate seat. Prior to the 17th Amendment, adopted on May 31, 1913, United States Senators were elected by their state legislatures. Lincoln and Douglas were running not against each other, strictly speaking, but to elect their party to control of the Illinois legislature.
Abraham Lincoln represented the new Republican Party had been founded in the Northern states in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, modernizers, ex-Whigs and ex-Free Soilers. The Republican Party quickly became the principal opposition to the dominant Southern Democratic Party and the briefly popular Know Nothing Party. Early Republican ideology was reflected in the 1856 slogan “free labor, free land, free men”, used during their first foray into national politics with John C. Fremont as their Presidential candidate.
Lincoln was a 49-year old lawyer from Springfield, Illinois at the time of the debates. He worked on both civil and criminal cases with his most famous civil client being the Illinois Central Railroad. Twice a year for 16 years, 10 weeks at a time, he appeared in county seats in the midstate region when the county courts were in session. Thus, he was widely known across the state.
Douglas was a 45-year old lawyer who had served in a number of appointed and elected positions starting in 1834. At age 27, he was appointed as an associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841. The following year he was elected as a U.S. Representative and was reelected in 1844. In 1846, he was elected as the U.S. Senator from Illinois.
Douglas was soon looked upon as one of the Democrat Party’s national leaders and was considered for the Presidency in 1852. During the Kansas-Nebraska Act debates of 1854, Douglas was the chief proponent of “popular sovereignty“, the doctrine that the people of a community were rightfully entitled to decide such issues for themselves.
The act would allow the citizens to vote for a free state or a slave state. The act was passed but it later led to violent conflict, most notably in “Bleeding Kansas”, where each side sought to gain the advantage by filling the territory with their supporters. If John Brown was the spark that lit the flame of Civil War, “Bleeding Kansas” was the tinder for the Brown.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates The debates previewed the issues that Lincoln would face in the aftermath of his victory in the 1860 presidential election. The main issue discussed in all seven debates was slavery.
Why seven debates. At the time Illinois had nine Congressional districts The two candidates agreed to hold one debate in each of the Congressional districts. Since both had recently spoken in Springfield and Chicago separately, these two locations were excluded. The debates were held in seven towns in the state: Ottawa on August 21, Freeport on August 27, Jonesboro on September 15,Charleston on September 18, Galesburg on October 7, Quincy on October 13, and Alton on October 15.
The format for each debate was: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute “rejoinder.” The candidates alternated speaking first. As the incumbent, Douglas spoke first in four of the debates.
The two contenders were physically as different as two men could be. Douglas was known as the “Little Giant” for his short stature, large head, & broad shoulders. Lincoln, on the other hand was 6’4″ and gangly.
The debates centered on the question of the day, slavery and its expansion into new territories of the United States. Lincoln was unalterably opposed to the further expansion of the institution while Douglas was in favor of popular sovereignty. Lincoln claimed that popular sovereignty would continue the expansion of slavery.
Each man marshalled their arguments using various laws and compromises that had been passed by Congress. Lincoln said that the national policy was to limit the spread of slavery, and mentioned the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which banned slavery from a large part of the modern-day Midwest, as an example of this policy.
The Compromise of 1850 allowed the territories of Utah and New Mexico to decide for or against slavery, but it also allowed the admission of California as a free state, reduced the size of the slave state of Texas by adjusting the boundary, and ended the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in the District of Columbia.
In return, the South got a stronger fugitive slave law than the version mentioned in the Constitution. Whereas Douglas said that the Compromise of 1850 replaced the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north and west of the state of Missouri, Lincoln said that this was false, and that Popular Sovereignty and the Dred Scott decision were a departure from the policies of the past that would nationalize slavery.
On election day, the Democrats won a narrow majority of seats in the Illinois General Assembly, despite getting slightly less than half the votes. The legislature then re-elected Douglas. However, the widespread media coverage of the debates greatly raised Lincoln’s national profile, making him a viable candidate for nomination as the Republican candidate in the upcoming 1860 presidential election. He would go on to secure both the nomination and the presidency, besting Douglas (as the Northern Democratic candidate), among others, in the process.