Today in History: First Lincoln-Douglas debate
August 21st, 2012
On August 21, 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas held their first debate as part of their campaign for one of Illinois’s two United States Senate seats. Between August 21 and October 15, the pair participated in seven debates; in each one, either Douglas or Lincoln would begin with an hour-long address, then the other would respond for an hour and a half, and the opener would have thirty minutes for a final rebuttal. As the incumbent, Douglas went first four of the seven times. Though Lincoln lost the election, his participation and performance in the debates put him in the national spotlight and paved the way for his successful election to the Presidency in 1860.
The first debate took place on a dry and dusty afternoon in Ottawa, Illinois. Between 10,000 and 12,000 people came to stand and watch–there were no seats or bleachers–and Douglas presented first. He wasted no time in focusing the debate on the central issue of the election: slavery. Accusing Lincoln of trying to “abolitionize” the Whig party, Douglas tried to show that Lincoln’s “house divided” stance–that a “government cannot endure permanently half Slave and half Free”–went against the ideas of the Founders:
I have no doubt that doctrine expresses your [Republican] sentiments (“hit them again,” “that’s it,”) and I will prove to you now, if you will listen to me, that it is revolutionary and destructive of the existence of this Government. (“Hurrah for Douglas,” “good,” and cheers.) Mr. Lincoln, in the extract from which I have read, says that this Government cannot endure permanently in the same condition in which it was made by its framers-divided into free and slave States. He says that it has existed for about seventy years thus divided, and yet he tells you that it cannot endure permanently on the same principles and in the same relative condition in which our fathers made it. Why can it not exist divided into free and slave States? Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and the great men of that day, made this Government divided into free States and slave States, and left each State perfectly free to do as it pleased on the subject of slavery. (“Right, right.”) Why can it not exist on the same principles on which our fathers made it? (“It can.”) They knew when they framed the Constitution that in a country as wide and broad as this, with such a variety of climate, production and interest, the people necessarily required different laws and institutions in different localities. They knew that the laws and regulations which would suit the granite hills of New Hampshire would be unsuited to the rice plantations of South Carolina, (“right, right,”) and they, therefore, provided that each State should retain its own Legislature and its own sovereignty, with the full and complete power to do as it pleased within its own limits, in all that was local and not national. (Applause.) One of the reserved rights of the States, was the right to regulate the relations between Master and Servant, on the slavery question. At the time the Constitution was framed, there were thirteen States in the Union, twelve of which were slaveholding States and one free State. Suppose this doctrine of uniformity preached by Mr. Lincoln, that the States should all be free or all be slave had prevailed, and what would have been the result? Of course, the twelve slaveholding States would have overruled the one free State, and slavery would have been fastened by a Constitutional provision on every inch of the American Republic, instead of being left as our fathers wisely left it, to each State to decide for itself. (“Good, good,” and three cheers for Douglas.) Here I assert that uniformity in the local laws and institutions of the different States in neither possible or desirable. If uniformity had been adopted when the Government was established, it must inevitably have been the uniformity of slavery everywhere, or else the uniformity of negro citizenship and negro equality everywhere.
Responding to Douglas’s characterization, Lincoln declared:
As I have not used up so much of my time as I had supposed, I will dwell a little longer upon one or two of these minor topics upon which the Judge has spoken. He has read from my speech in Springfield, in which I say that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Does the Judge say it can stand? (Laughter.) I don’t know whether he does or not. The Judge does not seem to be attending to me just now, but I would like to know if it is his opinion that a house divided against itself can stand. If he does, then there is a question of veracity, not between him and me, but between the Judge and an authority of a somewhat higher character. (Laughter and applause.)
Now, my friends, I ask your attention to this matter for the purpose of saying something seriously. I know that the Judge may readily enough agree with me that the maxim which was put forth by the Saviour is true, but he may allege that I misapply it; and the Judge has a right to urge that, in my application, I do misapply it, and then I have a right to show that I do not misapply it. When he undertakes to say that because I think this nation, so far as the question of slavery is concerned, will all become one thing or all the other, I am in favor of bringing about a dead uniformity in the various States, in all their institutions, he argues erroneously. The great variety of the local institutions in the States, springing from differences in the soil, differences in the face of the country, and in the climate, are bonds of Union. They do not make “a house divided against itself,” but they make a house united. If they produce in one section of the country what is called for by the wants of another section, and this other section can supply the wants of the first, they are not matters of discord but bonds of union, true bonds of union. But can this question of slavery be considered as among these varieties in the institutions of the country? I leave it to you to say whether, in the history of our Government, this institution of slavery has not always failed to be a bond of union, and, on the contrary, been an apple of discord, and an element of division in the house. (Cries of “Yes, yes,” and applause.) I ask you to consider whether, so long as the moral constitution of men’s minds shall continue to be the same, after this generation and assemblage shall sink into the grave, and another race shall arise, with the same moral and intellectual development we have-whether, if that institution is standing in the same irritating position in which it now is, it will not continue an element of division? (Cries of “Yes, yes.”) If so, then I have a right to say that, in regard to this question, the Union is a house divided against itself; and when the Judge reminds me that I have often said to him that the institution of slavery has existed for eighty years in some States, and yet it does not exist in some others, I agree to the fact, and I account for it by looking at the position in which our fathers originally placed it-restricting it from the new Territories where it had not gone, and legislating to cut off its source by the abrogation of the slave-trade thus putting the seal of legislation against its spread. The public mind didrest in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. (Cries of “Yes, yes.”) But lately, I think-and in this I charge nothing on the Judge’s motives-lately, I think, that he, and those acting with him, have placed that institution on a new basis, which looks to the perpetuity and nationalization of slavery. [Loud cheers.] And while it is placed upon this new basis, I say, and I have said, that I believe we shall not have peace upon the question until the opponents of slavery arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or, on the other hand, that its advocates will push it forward until it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South. Now, I believe if we could arrest the spread, and place it where Washington, and Jefferson, and Madison placed it, it would be in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind would, as for eighty years past, believe that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. The crisis would be past and the institution might be let alone for a hundred years, if it should live so long, in the States where it exists, yet it would be going out of existence in the way best for both the black and the white races. (Great cheering.)
Read the entire first debate here.
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Tags: Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, Today in History