How Do You Rate the Lincoln-Douglas Debates?

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 are among the most celebrated examples of political discourse in American history.  Yet they had their low moments.  At the Charleston debate in mid-September, Abraham Lincoln said:  “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.”  Students in History 288 need to explain that statement in its context.  Was Lincoln merely responding to vicious race-baiting from Stephen Douglas and the Illinois Democrats?  Was he expressing a sincerely held set of his own color prejudices?  If Lincoln believed what he said about equality, then how could he sound so adamant in asserting that blacks deserved all the rights of the Declaration of Independence?  These are challenging questions that require sophisticated analysis of the political culture of the late 1850s and the peculiar political style of Abraham Lincoln.  James McPherson provides an able narrative guide in the second half of chapter 6 from Battle Cry of Freedom but students should also consult the Lincoln-Douglas Debates Digital Classroom from the House Divided Project.  See especially the clickable word cloud of the debates.  Also, please examine the selected documents from the 1858 campaign, covering not only the seven debates but also the general strategy at stake in the partisan battle.  Perhaps the most revealing of these documents, at least as far as Lincoln was concerned, might be the so-called “bare suggestion” letter of October 20, 1858.  How would you describe Lincoln as a politician as he approached his fiftieth birthday in the campaign of his life?  It might also be interesting to consider the modern-day argument over whether or not contemporary candidates should engage in Lincoln-Douglas-style debates. See a recent op-ed by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer on why he believes that the debates offer a poor model for 2012 candidates.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How Do You Rate the Lincoln-Douglas Debates?

  1. Aaron Hock says:

    Lincoln’s statement at Charleston that “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,” does not accurately portray Lincoln’s opinions on the issue of slavery. I believe he uses his acute rhetoric to appeal to both Pro and Anti-Slavery voters in this line. It would seem from this phrase that Lincoln should support slavery. As Professor Pinsker explains in his video interview “Was Lincoln a racist?” this was not the case. Lincoln’s views on slavery were purely moral. He argued that black men and women were by-and-by men and women and, thus, the Declaration of Independence granted them (the men specifically) the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This meant freedom. That being said, Lincoln’s views were still framed by the universal views of the time, namely that race distinction correlated to class distinction. On a social and political level, as Lincoln describes in his quote, blacks were still inferior to their white peers. Lincoln says in his debate at Galesburg, Illinois that “the inferior races are our equals,” calling to mind the theme of “separate but equal” that would be tossed around 100 years later. Furthermore, Lincoln says in Charleston that if social and political equality is to be achieved it must start in the state legislature (where he then directs Stephen Douglas to remain, winning him laughter from the crowd). In this way, Lincoln’s views appealed to both Northern and Southern men. Northern abolitionists supported Lincoln’s views of slaves as human beings who deserved the rights guaranteed in the Declaration. Southern pro-slavery supporters agreed with Lincoln that even if slaves were men, they were still inferior beings. Essentially, Lincoln was as un-racist as one could be in the 1850′s.

  2. Darcy says:

    In the second part of McPherson’s chapter on the Dred Scott Decision, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and the economic climate of 1857, McPherson focuses on the comments exchanged during the debates between two Illinois candidates for the Senate. In covering the back and forth dialogue between Douglas and Lincoln, McPherson does not attempt to explain the contradictory nature of Lincoln’s comments. He does, however, explain how Douglas knew Lincoln’s true beliefs, “black speakers were campaigning for [Lincoln] in the Yankee districts of northern Illinois” (McPherson 185). Lincoln’s comments, like “I do not understand that because I do not want a negro for a slave I must necessarily have her for a wife” (McPherson 186), demonstrate the opinion that Lincoln was attempting to propagate. Douglas, on the other hand, wanted the constituents to believe that Lincoln thought “the Almighty made the negro equal to the white man” (McPherson 182). Lincoln straddled the line that separated the belief that slavery was immoral and the idea that all men, regardless of race, should be created equal. He spoke on both of these beliefs, and McPherson quotes his statements arguing both perspectives, but as the election of 1857 approached, Lincoln’s statements were more focused around the idea of immorality.
    The reason why he spoke on both beliefs is elusive. In the letter above, Lincoln wrote about preventing Irish immigrants from fraudulently affecting the vote. He wrote that if they were successful, they would “carry the day” (Lincoln Oct. 20 1858). He may have moved away for the idea that black should be considered equal to white men before the law because he wanted to increase his chances of being elected. We have spent a significant portion of class talking about the political genius of Lincoln however. We discussed his mastery of political alliances and the way he presented the appropriate image to the public, especially in connection with the election in 1855. Was he speaking to both perspectives on slavery so that he could appeal to a larger proportion of the public? Was this preparation for the presidential election in 1860? I’m inclined to believe that he wanted the debates to dwell on the issue of the morality of slavery and the equality of black men so that Douglas would have to defend himself against it. In self-defense, Douglas ended up alienating the Southern Democrats, thus destroying his chances at the White House. Douglas was a candidate that appealed to many Northerners and could have gained the favor of most of the South. This would have ensured his victory. But because of the way that he had to defend himself against Lincoln, especially his ardent defense of popular sovereignty, Douglas offended many Southerners who believed this ideology to be “cheat[ing]” (McPherson 195) them out of their right to expand slavery. Because Lincoln seemed to agree with both the immorality of slavery and the equality of men despite race, he opened the door for his race for the presidency.

  3. Alexandra Ostebo says:

    First off, I thought it was a brilliant idea to but the Lincoln-Douglass debates in a word cloud. It shows us a lot about not only the primary focus of the two candidates speeches but when you compare this word cloud with that of other Presidential debates it reveals how their speeches have evolved over the past 100 or so years.
    In terms of the words that are most mentioned in the Douglass-Lincoln speeches I was not surprised that “State(s)” and “Slavery” are two very prevalent words in this debate. I was interested however at how much the word “Constitution” came up, it seems that the debate over what it’s intent was still stands uncertain by both parties. Also I noticed that 75% of the words are really small while only 10 words are substantially bigger this shows how pointed the debates actually were. In comparison to presidential debates in the past, we see that they used to be much more elaborate and wordy. It is also interesting to see that “State”, “One”, “People” and “Right” are still primary words used in presidential debates.

  4. Tim says:

    The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 provide many intriguing and interesting circumstances that require careful attention to detail to fully understand the meaning of what was said in context. The Lecompton swindle served as the driving cause behind the 7 debates these two men had in their campaigns to be a state senator in Illinois. The backdrop of these debates presents an interesting scenario. These debates provided Stephen Douglas with the opportunity to redefine his position after his difficult split with James Buchanan and other Democrats. It was also the first time Abraham Lincoln made a push for public nominations because he wanted to prevent Stephen Douglas from being able to switch to the Republican Party, which would in turn make the Republican Party vulnerable to attacks from Buchanan and other Democrats. Lincoln’s stated at the Charleston debate in mid-September: “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.” Out of context, this statement appears controversial but it requires a deeper understanding of what Lincoln meant to fully understand this statement. Blacks could be seen through the scope of 3 points of view at this time as either: property, humans, or citizens. In order to win support during the debates Lincoln’s goal and focus was to separate the issues of race and slavery to get people to listen. While Stephen Douglas focused intently on the issue of slavery, Lincoln’s remarks were more aimed at race-mixing than the institution or his beliefs on slavery. Lincoln’s statement at the Charleston debate is definitive, but it leaves the possibility for change in the future. His statement directly addresses the present and past, but makes no mention of the future. This was deliberate because Lincoln held many of the same views as the Founding Fathers who believed that citizenship required virtue. Lincoln and the Founding Fathers also agreed that all people had natural or human rights but were not necessarily equal and deserved citizenship. Douglas tried to twist the point Lincoln was trying to make as Darcy points out above. Lincoln was not a racist but just held many of the same views of the Founding Fathers that it required more of a person to be a citizen but that both blacks and whites were humans and therefore had natural rights.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>