Facts, information and articles about the Lincoln / Douglas Debates

Lincoln Douglas Debates summary: The Lincoln–Douglas Debates of 1858 were a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for Senate in Illinois, and the incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Party candidate both vying to win the Senate seat of Illinois. The famous debates revolved around the subject of slavery, and the debates had the format of each candidate being able to speak for 90 minutes. They are generally considered one of the most famous political contests in American History, tackling the issue of the survival of the union and the institution of slavery. Though they were vying for a Senate seat, the debates ended up being very important in determining the future Presidency, which Lincoln won in 1860.



Featured Article On The Lincoln Douglas Debates

Three Views of the Lincoln-Douglass Dynamic: August/September 2009

By Michael Fellman

In the past two years four authors have undertaken joint biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Contextualizing the overlapping roles of these complex personalities proves to be a fascinating and challenging litmus test of the political values not only of two iconic individuals but also of the historians interpreting them.

Lincoln and Douglass met only three times, so it can be misleading to make too much of their personal ties. Doug­lass was a radical abolitionist who was highly critical of the conservative presi­dent for most of the war. In 1861 Douglass wrote of Lincoln, “what an excellent slavehound he is,” and a year later exploded, “Mr. Lincoln assumes the language of an itinerant Colonization lecturer, showing…his pride of blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy.” Their relationship was more often antagonistic than mutually supportive.

All four authors are aware of this conflictual interaction. While James Oakes and the father-and-son team of Paul and Stephen Kendrick focus on the Civil War period, John Stauffer spends two-thirds of his book on the subjects’ earlier lives. Stauffer’s longer-term framework follows an observation that Douglass himself made well after Lincoln’s assassination, that each had understood the other because both were self-made men. As this was the century of the self-made man, this parallel is unsurprising, and many of the shared characteristics that Stauffer discusses are somewhat commonplace.

At his best, Stauffer adds new interpretive insights to well-known biographical information, particularly when describing Lincoln’s intimate relationship with Joshua Speed, “his soulmate and the love of his life.” But this and many other biographical details Stauffer discusses are unrelated to Lincoln’s ties with Douglass, the book’s ostensible subject.

Stauffer is at his most incisive, in tandem with the other authors, when discussing the political history of the war. Like the Kendricks, he is sympathetic to Douglass’ impatience to turn the war for the Union into a war against slavery, and also critical of Lincoln’s hesitation to take the struggle in that direction.

Although Oakes tells us in his preface that Lincoln was radicalized by the war while Douglass became a Republican, his study is essentially dualistic, grounded in his frequently articulated preference for the politician over the reformer. Lincoln was “reason” to Douglass’ “passion,” Oakes writes; he was “careful and deliberate,” while Douglass was “quick and impulsive” and “myopic.” Oakes does not dismiss Lincoln’s racial prejudices, but argues that the president used racism “stra­tegically, raising the issue because he had to eliminate it,” in order to focus on the evils of slavery without adopting racial equality as a goal, a necessary move given the inexorable limits of Northern antislavery sentiment. As for Douglass, Oakes condemns his “refusal to compromise that makes reformers so attractive and so frustrating…self-appointed saints in a world filled with sinners.”

Such distaste for reformers dismisses serious consideration of the essential dialectic between reformers and the Lincoln administration that drove the war in the direction of the abolitionists. The Kendricks and Stauffer provide more evidence of this set of political influences and interactions.

Oakes argues that Douglass was a lone wolf who may have admired Charles Sumner, but that he “did not even associate with the Radical Republicans.” This is wrong. As Stauffer points out, Douglass and Sumner were frequent correspondents and friends. The Kendricks add that William A. Seward long subscribed to Douglass’ newspaper and the two men corresponded before the war. And as Douglass later recalled, Salmon Chase invited Douglass to dinner, breaking with racist protocol in a way that was far more dramatic than anything Lincoln ever did.

Lincoln was open to the Radicals and the abolitionists because they had a clear strategy. They understood that a war restoring the Union without ending slavery would be at best an inconclusive victory, as it was the overwhelming Southern desire to preserve slavery that had animated secession in the first place.

Douglass articulated this understanding right from the moment of secession. On April 28, 1861, he told an audience that “the war now being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery; and it can never be effectively put down till one or the other of these vital forces is completely destroyed.” He believed that the “inexorable logic of events,” including the eventual need for huge numbers of black troops, would drive the now hesi­tant Lincoln administration to “proclaim liberty throughout all the land.”

Eighteen months into the war, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, almost simultaneously calling for the enlistment of black men into the Army. Thereafter the Confederacy would be compelled to capitulate to the destruction of slavery as a precondition for reunion. Whatever his fantasies about colonization or his limited views about racial equality, Lincoln had adopted the essence of the radical program for the war.

One of the central problems in biographies is the tendency to make the great man, or in this case, two great men more independent as actors than could ever be the case. Lincoln and Douglass can be best understood within the context of their times; both realized how little inde­pendent agen­cy they had in directing events.

Even after emancipation, freedom remained incomplete. Black soldiers remained second-class, often-abused soldiers. Equal rights for freedmen—for Douglass the next step beyond emancipation—had barely begun to seep into Lincoln’s thinking by the time he was assassinated.

The tentative racial rapprochement begun during the Civil War and intensified during Reconstruction soon fell apart. Even during the height of radical change there was no consensus among the Republicans that racial justice was an attainable goal. And by 1875, a sizable number of Northern whites, the Democrats and almost the entire white South were able to systematize their political domination in Dixie by destroying Reconstruction, violently repressing black efforts to obtain real freedom, and creating a white supremacist Jim Crow society.

For all these reasons, leaders such as Douglass and Lincoln should not be isolated as independent agents of change. Historians and readers also ought to remain wary of the power of their own metaphorical—and idealistic—desire to abstract this solitary relationship and use it as a symbol of the resolution of the great racial divide in American history.

Stauffer concludes that Lincoln and Douglass forged a friendship “hinged on their capacity to forgive [and] came together in the cause of interracial Union.” He also extrapolates literary images of a general rapprochement across the racial divide, concluding that “Once blacks and whites began working together to achieve their sepa­rate goals of ending slavery and saving the Union, interracial friendships and alliances flourished. Fighting the rebels with both hands effec- tively meant that one hand was white and the other black.”

More detached, the Kendricks conclude that “there is no need to sentimentalize the relationship, to claim they were friends, or to falsely claim that Douglass turned Lincoln into the ‘Great Emancipator’….They met not as friends, but as men able to talk.” They discuss not only what has been achieved, but what still needs to be done to reconcile Americans across racial lines. The Kendricks conclude that the three meetings of Douglass and Lincoln were “small moments in the centuries-old unfolding of the trial of race in America.” Their relationship remains instructive as “an example of engagement, argument, and honesty.”

Pushed by 4 million of the enslaved who were on their own path to liberation, and by a wide range of abolitionists and Radicals, including Douglass, Lincoln’s leadership undoubtedly was indispensable to saving the nation and directing the war to an abolitionist conclusion. Yet it was not the start of inevitably developing racial progress, but a loving and hesitant, hopeful and wounded, significant and partial first step up a long and rocky road in the direction of genuine freedom for all.


For more information on the life of Abraham Lincoln including pictures, facts, speeches quotes, family life, articles and accomplishments like the Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation, please see our Abraham Lincoln theme page.