They Soared Above the Din

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

edited by Rodney O. Davis andDouglas L. Wilson
Knox College Lincoln Studies Center/University of Illinois Press, 392 pp., $35.00

The Lincoln-Douglas debates during the Illinois Senate campaign of 1858 were tedious, long-winded, and repetitious. Both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas spun out elaborate conspiracy theories alleging nefarious plots by obscure politicians. The candidates were outraged by each other’s “infamous” accusations. Douglas was scandalized by the charge that he was part of a sinister conspiracy to spread slavery nationwide; Lincoln dismissed the claim that his candidacy was part of a shady deal engineered to make up for his failure to win the Senate seat four years earlier. But both candidates ignored each other’s indignant denials. They called each other liars. They both used racist epithets, sprinkling their remarks with the “n” word. On important issues they were often evasive and deliberately misleading. Douglas repeatedly distorted Lincoln’s positions; Lincoln often drew apocalyptic inferences from Douglas’s arguments, claiming they would make slavery permanent by making it morally acceptable. But no matter how poorly Lincoln or Douglas performed, their operatives tried to make sure that an intensely partisan press would report only that their preferred candidate had inflicted a devastating defeat upon his opponent.

Conspiracy-mongering, race-baiting, and spin-doctoring were not what John McCain had in mind when he challenged Barack Obama to a series of “town meetings” to debate the issues in this year’s presidential election campaign. Nor are they what Obama’s campaign manager intended when he responded by proposing a “format that is less structured” based on the Lincoln- Douglas debates. What made that model so attractive was the prospect of a serious discussion of issues and principles rather than a display of personalities and propaganda.

It’s not a complete fantasy. There was much more to the Lincoln-Douglas debates than base accusations and false outrage. Lincoln and Douglas were skillful stump speakers. There are moments of stunning rhetorical brilliance spread throughout their exchanges. And they got better as they went along. The diversionary scuffling over long-forgotten backroom deals diminished somewhat as Lincoln and Douglas focused more intently on the great issue of their day, slavery, clarifying their own positions and the differences that separated them.


Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had been arguing politics since they arrived in central Illinois within months of each other in the 1830s, but not until 1854 did their disagreement center on the explosive issue of slavery and its expansion. Lincoln was a free-soiler; he believed that slavery should be excluded from the western territories because it violated the principle of fundamental human equality. Douglas, defiantly neutral on the morality of slavery, advocated popular sovereignty, which would allow settlers in the territories to decide for themselves whether they wanted slaves.

That argument would never have erupted had it not been for a controversial piece of legislation—the Kansas-Nebraska Act—that Douglas, as senator from Illinois, maneuvered through Congress in 1854. Slavery had been banned from the Nebraska territory under the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, but Douglas’s law repealed the sacred compromise, split the territory in two, and organized both halves—Kansas and Nebraska—on the principle of popular sovereignty. Douglas hoped that in shifting the slavery question to the territories he would remove a disruptive issue from national politics. But far from calming everybody down, the Kansas-Nebraska Act made people more upset than ever. Back in Illinois it brought Abraham Lincoln out of semiretirement and into antislavery politics for the first time. The two men argued on and off for four years and in 1858 Lincoln entered the race for the US Senate hoping to unseat Douglas.

Their seven famous exchanges were only a small part of the 1858 campaign, and they were not what any of us today would recognize as debates. One candidate would open with an hour-long speech, the other would follow with a ninety-minute rejoinder, after which the first candidate would return to the platform for a final thirty-minute solo. There were no moderators, but there were lively and vocal audiences. Although the candidates sometimes put questions to one another, there was little give-and-take. It was more like twenty-one speeches in a row.

They wore themselves out, Douglas especially. Focusing their attention on the crucial swing counties of central Illinois, they crisscrossed the state giving hundreds of speeches over several months. They spoke from sun-drenched platforms in the scorching August heat and as fall came they spoke against cold, wet winds. By the end of the campaign Douglas was a wreck, his thunderous voice shrunken to a hoarse whisper by bronchitis, alcohol, and sheer exhaustion. Lincoln held up better, in part because his spirits lifted as his own performance improved. And although Douglas managed to retain his Senate seat, the debates made Lincoln nationally famous and they put him on the short list of 1860 presidential possibilities, while at the same time they dispelled the illusions of eastern Republicans that Douglas could be wooed to their party.

This is the story most historians recite and in Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, Allen C. Guelzo, a professor of history at Gettysburg College, retells it in more detail and with more thorough research than anyone else. He recreates the drama of each debate and gives a masterful account of the ins and outs of Illinois politics. Along the way he fills in much of the background, making sense of the baroque charges and countercharges, evaluating the conspiracy theories, and identifying the obscure politicians, the reporters, and the wire-pullers who played supporting roles in the unfolding theatrics. The book includes mini-histories of newspaper publishing, of public speaking, and of each of the towns in which the candidates debated. It’s a powerful story, deftly told. Guelzo’s prose has an old-fashioned urbanity, slightly pompous but also wry and detached. He has a keen ear for the telling anecdote and he knows how to step back and let the quotations make his point. The book exudes a cosmopolitan awareness of the distortions and corruptions of everyday politics, but Guelzo never lapses into cynicism. He knows that beneath all the hoopla serious issues were in play.


But what of the larger meaning of the debates? One way to answer the question is to emphasize their historical significance. Lincoln and Douglas attracted large crowds of attentive partisans who put sharp questions to the candidates, shouted out their support, or hooted in opposition. At each new town they were greeted by supporters waving banners and shouting slogans. This broad and often raucous engagement with the issues reflects a popular political culture that has largely disappeared from American public life.

But some aspects of the Lincoln-Douglas debates were altogether new, foreshadowing things to come. Never before had major newspapers around the country sent reporters to cover a race for the Senate in a far-off state. Even more significant, the transcripts of the debates were published in full—in the Chicago papers within thirty-six hours, a day or two later in New York and elsewhere. It was Douglas who attracted so much attention from the press; but Lincoln, confident about his performance, gathered the transcripts in a scrapbook, made a few minor corrections, and republished them in time for the 1860 presidential campaign. Their wide and unprecedented circulation allowed the Lincoln-Douglas debates to enter swiftly into national mythology as a highpoint of American political rhetoric.1

Guelzo appreciates all of this but he also reflects a school of political theorists who discern in the debates a larger struggle for the soul of the nation. They believe that Lincoln gave liberal democracy a moral core, that he rescued the republic from the amoral alternative offered by Stephen Douglas, for whom democracy was a mere “process.” In some versions of this argument liberalism itself is the problem because it is said to be so devoid of any intrinsic conception of the greater good that it must import its principles from some alternative political or moral tradition. This is a familiar charge leveled by communitarians such as the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, and it is hardly surprising that Guelzo invokes Sandel’s critique of the “procedural republic.”2 Lincoln and Douglas were fighting for two “radically different notions of what democratic politics really is,” Guelzo writes. For Douglas democracy was a procedure, for Lincoln it was a principle.

Guelzo’s true inspiration, however, is the political theorist Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided (1959), echoes of which reverberate throughout Lincoln and Douglas. Jaffa, a student of Leo Strauss, described Lincoln as that rarest of men who could grasp the transcendent truths of natural law and put them to work infusing democracy with a moral purpose. Guelzo says exactly the same thing. Lincoln was a “teacher of teachers,” Jaffa wrote; “our greatest preceptor,” says Guelzo. Jaffa’s Lincoln understood as early as 1838 that it was his destiny to free the slaves; Guelzo’s Lincoln took the presidential oath already intending to abolish slavery. Jaffa anointed Lincoln a “political savior,” not unlike “that other Messiah.” Guelzo sees Lincoln in similarly messianic terms, hence the subtitle of his 1999 biography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.

And like all true redeemers, Lincoln was often alone in his mission. In his 2003 study Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Guelzo briskly dismissed the possibility that others besides Lincoln were important in freeing the slaves. The abolitionists? Dogmatic extremists, Guelzo declared, and Lincoln hated them. Even more abruptly Guelzo waved away the rapidly accumulating body of evidence that fugitive slaves and black soldiers played a critical part in their own emancipation. And what about the abolition of slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment, which Lincoln supported but which originated in Congress and was ratified by the states? A mere “coda” to Lincoln’s proclamation, Guelzo writes in a recent essay. In his new book Guelzo says that during the 1850s “the United States turned the principles of self- government into a natural morality,” and explains how it happened by quoting from Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism (2003): “It was Lincoln who did this.” He alone replaced Douglas’s vacuous conception of democracy with a politics made moral by timeless natural law.

Guelzo sees evidence to support his interpretation within the debates themselves, summaries of which form the core of his new book. In the hands of a less gifted writer these pages could easily have collapsed into dreary repetition, but Guelzo’s summaries are never dull. They are not entirely accurate, however. He has tended in the past to put his own opinions into Lincoln’s mouth. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President opens with a highly misleading passage suggesting that Lincoln hated Thomas Jefferson. Guelzo has repeatedly claimed that Lincoln loathed antislavery radicals, an absurd simplification of a complicated set of relationships. It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is Guelzo, not Lincoln, who doesn’t much care for Jefferson or the abolitionists.

Guelzo’s summaries of the Lincoln-Douglas debates reveal a similar impulse to project his views onto the text. Here’s the opening of his summary of Lincoln’s rejoinder to Douglas at the Quincy debate:

The problem with Douglas’s argument, Lincoln began curtly, was that slavery was the problem, and Douglas’s concentration on process was a cynical attempt to avoid what everyone knew to be the real issue.

But Douglas viewed democracy as a sacred principle, not an empty procedure, and Lincoln said nothing at Quincy or anywhere else about Douglas’s alleged “concentration on process.” Guelzo’s Lincoln also invokes natural law with suspicious frequency. During the final debate at Alton, Guelzo has Lincoln say—again this is paraphrase—that “slavery is nothing else but the reversal of the American Revolution and the overthrow of natural law….”

But did Lincoln really use such terms? I plugged the words “natural law” into the search engine for the on-line edition of Lincoln’s Collected Works and there were no matches. To the extent that he thought about such things, Lincoln tended to locate the origin of his principles not in natural law but in human history, particularly the American Revolution. In his determination to escape the limitations of merely historical analysis Guelzo has imported a set of categories that neither Lincoln nor Douglas would have recognized and that obscures rather than illuminates the substance of their debates.

Lincoln would not have dismissed popular sovereignty as merely procedural for the simple reason that he accepted it as a general rule, albeit a rule that did not apply to slavery. It did apply to racial discrimination. States and territories, Lincoln believed, could decide for themselves whether blacks should be allowed to vote, serve on juries, marry whites, or hold public office. Douglas had no moral qualms about such policies. Lincoln did, but he subordinated his own misgivings to the superior claims of popular sovereignty. The “justice and sound judgment” of white supremacy, Lincoln said in his 1854 Peoria speech, “is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it.” Instead Lincoln held that the “universal feeling” among whites that blacks were inferior, “whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded.” Massachusetts was within its rights to allow blacks to vote while discriminating against immigrants, Lincoln explained, just as the people of Illinois were free to welcome immigrants while discriminating against blacks. Douglas said something like this about slavery. He endorsed the decision of his fellow Illinoisans to abolish slavery in their own state, but what the people of other states and territories decided to do about slavery was their own business.

Lincoln disavowed any intention of interfering with slavery in the states where it already existed precisely because it was constitutionally protected in those states. Not in the western territories, however. Congress had the constitutional power to restrict slavery in the territories and it should do so, Lincoln argued, because slavery was immoral. Here was the crucial disagreement between Lincoln and Douglas—not the morality of politics in general, but the immorality of slavery in particular.


Anyone reading the debates will immediately notice a third character up on the platform arguing in absentia—Roger B. Taney, the Chief Justice of the United States, who a year earlier had written the majority opinion in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. Slavery could not be excluded from any western territories, Taney declared, either by the people themselves acting on the principle of popular sovereignty or by congressional imposition of free soil. Clearly neither Lincoln nor Douglas could ignore a ruling that undermined both of their positions. They had, above all, to address two of the Court’s most important claims. First, Taney held that slaves were a species of property no different from any other and that the Constitution expressly affirmed a right of property in slaves. Second, he ruled that because blacks were slaves at the time the nation was founded they could never be citizens. With those two claims Roger Taney set the terms of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Citizenship had never been an important political issue, but Taney made it one. Shortly after the Court’s decision was published in 1857, Lincoln spelled out the dangerous implications of the Chief Justice’s claim that blacks were not citizens because their ancestors had been slaves at the time of the Revolution. What about the millions of immigrants who were quickly becoming citizens, Lincoln asked? Their ancestors weren’t even here when the nation was founded. Taney’s bad logic and egregious history led Lincoln to suspect something sinister. By stripping northern blacks of their citizenship, Lincoln believed, Taney was laying the groundwork for the nationalization of slavery. Dred Scott already allowed slavery into the territories; one more decision and it would be allowed into the northern states as well.

With malicious glee, Stephen Douglas denounced Lincoln’s attack on Dred Scott as a scandalous endorsement of black citizenship. He retooled his habitual demagoguery to broach the topic in his opening speech at their very first debate, in Ottawa:

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…. I ask you, are you in favor of conferring upon the negro the rights and privileges of citizenship?… I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form…. I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.

Guelzo, following Michael Sandel, describes Douglas’s view of democracy as “thin” because it was “unencumbered” by “nonpolitical” attachments “such as kinship [or] ethnic identity.” But it was Taney who welded citizenship to kinship, and Douglas who served up ethnic identity as a better standard. This country was founded on “the white basis,” he kept shouting, and blacks can’t be citizens, because they’re black. Democracy doesn’t get much more “encumbered” than that.

Lincoln tried to silence this discussion with his notorious endorsement of racial inequality at the opening of the Charleston debate. They are the worst words he ever uttered. “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” Lincoln said. There is, he added,

a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

Yet as shocking as this was, it was actually an attempt to dodge the citizenship question that Douglas kept raising. Social and political equality did not mean the same thing as the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship, and Douglas knew it. Lincoln “has declared that he was not in favor of the social and political equality of the negro,” Douglas answered in his Charleston rejoinder,

but he would not say whether or not he was opposed to negroes voting and negro citizenship. I want to know whether he is for or against negro citizenship.

Lincoln responded by pedaling backward. He objected to the Dred Scott decision, he now claimed, not because it deprived blacks of their citizenship but because it stripped states of their authority to decide for themselves who was and was not a citizen. “If the state of Illinois had that power” to grant blacks citizenship, Lincoln said, “I would be opposed to the exercise of it.”

Douglas had backed Lincoln into a corner. But Lincoln didn’t stay there. At the very moment that he assumed the presidency, with Taney and Douglas sitting right behind him, Lincoln used his inaugural address to declare that free blacks who were hunted down as fugitives should enjoy the “privileges and immunities” to which all citizens were equally entitled. This bold assertion of equal citizenship rights soon became the official policy of the Lincoln administration, forcefully enunciated in a remarkable opinion issued in 1862 by Attorney General Edward Bates. Not one word of the Constitution, Bates declared, justifies the color barrier to citizenship that Taney had proclaimed in Dred Scott. Free blacks who were born in America were citizens of the United States. Period. During Lincoln’s presidency the Dred Scott citizenship ruling was pronounced null and void and within a few years Bates’s reasoning would be permanently affixed in the Constitution by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Still more dramatic was Lincoln’s repudiation of Taney’s claim that owning slaves was an inviolable right of property. Now it was Lincoln’s turn to needle Douglas. If slave ownership was a constitutionally protected property right, Lincoln pointedly asked, how could territorial settlers legally exclude slavery? The Court had watered popular sovereignty down until it was “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.”

Douglas claimed that the people of a territory could override the Supreme Court by refusing to pass a slave code, but Lincoln pointed out that if this “lawless” doctrine were accepted the abolitionists could by the same logic refuse to enforce the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution. This time Douglas had painted himself into a corner. He endorsed the Court’s ruling that there was a right of property in slaves and then tried to argue that elected officials could simply refuse to enforce the right.

Lincoln escaped this problem by taking a much more straightforward position: Dred Scott was wrongly decided. There is no constitutional right to slave property in the territories. Lincoln warmed slowly to this conclusion. At the first debate he scoffed at the idea of ” property, so-called” in slaves. In the third debate he speculated that “if” he were to withhold legislative support for the Court’s decision, “it would be because I deny that this decision properly construes the Constitution.” By the time he reached Galesburg for the fifth debate, Lincoln dropped the conditional tense and declared that “the right of property in a slave is not distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.” But it was not until the final debate, at Alton, that Lincoln flatly denied that such a right existed. “I do not believe it is a constitutional right to hold slaves in a territory of the United States,” he said.

Lincoln tossed this out almost as an afterthought at the very end of the debates. Two years later he clarified his position at Cooper Union in New York City. The Constitution protected slavery in two places—the three-fifths clause, in which three fifths of the slave population were counted for apportionment of representatives to Congress, and the fugitive slave clause—both of which referred to slaves as “persons,” not “property.” The property clauses made no mention of slaves. The founders had restricted slavery wherever they could and recognized it out of necessity where they had to, Lincoln concluded, but they did not raise slavery to the level of a constitutionally protected property right.

Lincoln’s argument sounds reasonable enough now, but it was breathtaking at the time. For more than a century opponents of slavery had been stymied because the very thing that made slavery immoral—reducing humans to property—also protected it as a constitutional right. But in 1860 Lincoln flicked that right aside. He took the final step during the Civil War. Congress twisted itself into knots trying to find a way to legally emancipate slaves without trampling on the rights of property, but Lincoln said property rights did not apply to slaves. If they did the Emancipation Proclamation would be unconstitutional.


Dred Scott changed the argument Lincoln was struggling against, but it did not alter the principles he was fighting for. From the moment he returned to politics in 1854, Lincoln claimed that slavery was wrong because it violated Jefferson’s promise of equality embedded in the Declaration of Independence. Douglas insisted that the founders never intended to include an inferior race of blacks in the Declaration’s promises. Both framed their arguments in historical rather than philosophical terms. They fought over what the founders originally intended, not what natural law decreed. But Lincoln went beyond the legacy of the Revolution when he fused the inalienable “rights of man” to the universal rights of labor. The result was an astonishingly eloquent denunciation of slavery in which social, economic, political, and moral arguments were seamlessly interwoven. Near the close of their final debate Lincoln said that the “real issue” between himself and Douglas transcended the right and wrong of slavery. It was the

struggle between these two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world…. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same old serpent that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

There was more to this than Jeffersonian idealism. Lincoln liked to say that every thought he ever had about slavery came from the great Whig statesman Henry Clay. Like many Whigs, Lincoln’s enthusiasm for economic development was tempered by an abiding suspicion of unrestrained markets. His attack on slavery reflected this suspicion. In the 1840s he gave a speech supporting temperance but rejecting the moralistic urge to denounce the drunkard as a sinner. The real culprits, Lincoln said, were those who manufactured, distributed, and sold liquor as though it were flour or beef, as though alcohol was no different from any other commodity. But liquor was not like any other commodity, Lincoln said, and it should not be treated as such. A decade later he was talking about slavery the same way. It was immoral to treat human beings as if they were “common property.”

Douglas’s version of popular sovereignty, Lincoln argued, was wrong because it assumed that slaves were no different from hogs or cotton. The Dred Scott decision was offensive for the same reason. Taney claimed that slaves were legally indistinguishable from the horses and furniture that settlers carried with them into the western territories. Lincoln repeatedly denounced this as the philosophy of “greed,” of “selfishness,” of unrestrained “self-interest.” There were limits—moral limits—beyond which the market should never be allowed to go, and surely one of them was the buying and selling of human beings. If that’s not wrong, Lincoln said, nothing is wrong.

It’s hard to imagine that two presidential candidates would want to reproduce the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Twenty-one speeches in a row? Lasting up to ninety minutes each? Audiences hissing and shouting as their candidates wrangled over a single issue for hours on end? There is no such clearly defined and overriding issue today. And even if there were, the candidates would exhaust their arguments after a single nationally televised debate.

But if the format can’t be reproduced, the principles Lincoln and Douglas invoked speak directly to the questions hovering over this year’s presidential election. Who gets to be a citizen, and what does it mean to be one? How much weight should courts have in determining public policy? At what point do the evils of war outweigh the hope of spreading democracy? And aren’t there some things, like education and health care, that should never be for sale? Not everything about the Lincoln-Douglas debates is worthy of emulation, but at their best they soared beyond the distracting din, reaching peaks of eloquence that stand to this day as a model for any politician who would bring basic principles to bear on the most urgent and divisive issues of our time.

  1. 1

    All the quotations from the debates in this essay are taken from the important new edition edited by Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson under the auspices of the Knox College Lincoln Studies Center. Though based on the same basic transcripts that Lincoln and most subsequent scholars have used, Davis and Wilson have corrected the irregular paragraphing, arbitrary punctuation, and occasionally garbled transcriptions in the originals. The result is a definitive new edition that is far more readable and almost certainly more reliable.

  2. 2

    Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 21–24.