The Lincoln-Douglas Debates "Great Debates of 1858", August 21st - October 15th, 1858

by Erik Fogel | Aug 21, 2017 7:00:00 AM |

lincoln douglas debates, stephen douglas, abraham lincoln



Between August 21st and October 15th in 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in a series of seven debates focusing on the controversial subject of slavery in the United States. The two men were vying for a spot in the US Senate as a representative from the state of Illinois. Illinois was a free state, but the future of slavery across new U.S. territories was at stake. Slavery was rapidly declining in popularity across the country and both men had distinctly different responses to the issue. 



The debates were held in seven towns in the state of Illinois:

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.


Stephen Douglas advocated popular sovereignty which left decisions about slavery in the realm of the state. Abraham Lincoln, by contrast, opposed the expansion of slavery to any new state or territory, hoping to phase out the despicable practice more rapidly across the country. The public was deeply invested in this issue, both morally and financially, so their attention to Lincoln and Douglas's series of debates was strong and focused.


People came from neighboring states to listen to the two men battle for the position. With no power to decide the winner, the presense of so many out-of-state spectators was telling. Even in-state spectators were just that, spectators. U.S. Senators at the time were elected by state legislators rather than the general population so there was no public decision following the debates. People attended the debates not because they wanted to make an educated vote, but out of personal desire to understand the finessed stances of the two Parties.


Lincoln lost the Senate seat to the incumbent Douglas. But Lincoln wasn't finished trying to influence the country with his anti-slavery agenda. He used the text of his speeches and transcriptions of the debates in a book which he published. His accounts of the debate series caught the attention of the nation and propelled him into the presidency shortly thereafter. 


 What really make these debates stand out in history, as Allen C. Guelzo, author of “Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America” observes was not just the content of the debate but the fact that, for the first time in history, the debaters, in essence, were speaking to the entire nation, not just a subset of it.


"The combination of shorthand, the telegraph, and the railroad changed everything” says Guelzo. Chicago newspapers had sent transcriptionists to the debates and they captured every word of what was said. Halfway through the debates, runners would take what had been transcribed and jump on a train back to Chicago. As they were traveling, they were deciphering the shorthand so that it could be typeset and printed in the next day’s newspapers. Thanks to the telegraph, these transcripts were sent all over the nation and printed in their entirety in practically every newspaper.


The Great Lincoln versus Douglas Debates demonstrate the power of debate better than practically any other debate held sense. As Lincoln observed, the issues covered in the debate would be discussed long after “these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent.”


Never underestimate the power of your words to change the course of history. Lincoln persisted with his vision of a free country for all. He used his voice in public and in print to impact the future of America. Even a loss like Lincoln's in 1858 is not a wasted experience. Value the opportunity to speak up and don't quit just because you've lost. 

Lessons like these are learned through debate. Contact us to learn more.

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