I doubt if many of us could stand to go watch two senatorial candidates speak for three hours. But in 1858, that is what the people of Illinois did. In fact, the nation had turned its eyes to Illinois to bear witness as to what the two men had to say. One was the short incumbent Senator – nicknamed the Little Giant. The other, a state legislator, a gangly fellow who ten years earlier had served one term in the US House of Representatives. The debates were scheduled as part of the the 1858 campaign for the seat to the US Senate. Back then, the Illinois Legislature, as did all state legislatures, elected the Senators. Seven debates in all were scheduled. The main topic was the topic of the day, Slavery.
Since 1820, the young United States of America compromised about how slavery would, and could, spread in the young nation. At that time, Maine was to enter to the union as a free state, Missouri as a slave state. Any other state that joined the Union above 36 degrees and 30 minutes latitude would be free, below slave. This “Missouri Compromise” was deemed as a way to hold off dealing with the issue of slavery for infinity if necessary. Slave states liked the compromise as it kept in balance in the Senate the number of slave and free states. Free states liked the compromise because the growth of slavery was kept in check. In 1848, everything changed.
1848 saw the end of the US-Mexican War. The resulting treaty saw the US receive parts of 8 future states. This Mexican Cession changed the shape of the country. A gold rush in California sped up the process. The population of California boomed and had enough people to make a state. The problem was half of California lay above 36’30, and half below. The state could not be half-free and half-slave. In addition, what was to become of the territories in the Mexican Cession. Some states even claimed land in this cession. A compromise awaited.
In the compromise, Texas was to give up it claims for land in the cession in return for 10 million dollars. In addition, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah were to be set up without discussing slavery. That determination was to made by popular sovereignty when the territory applied for state hood. The slave trade would be abolished in the District of Columbia. California was to be admitted as a free state. Finally, to quell the slave states, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. The Fugitive Slave Act was very controversial. This law allowed southerners to go into the north to find and return escaped slaves. As a result, many freed blacks began making their way to Canada.
Throughout the 1850s, the question of the spread of slavery began to grow. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas helped to write not only the Compromise of 1850, but also the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Douglas was a proponent of popular sovereignty wherein the people in a state or territory decide whether or not slavery is permitted. Based on the compromise of 1820, the federal government had decided whether land was to be free or slave. This clash over who decides would not only lead to bloodshed in Kansas and Nebraska in the 1850s, but all over the nation.
By 1858, Illinois had become the center of the debate. A new party, established in 1854, had only one purpose – to end slavery. This new Republican Party garnered most of its members from the defunct Whig Party. One of its early members was Abraham Lincoln. A lawyer, born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and a resident of Illinois since the early 1830s, was a well known orator, lawyer, and state legislator. Lincoln was running for the Senate seat that year in hopes of defeating Douglas. The two men agreed to a series of debates to be held in seven Illinois cities – Freeport, Charleston, Alton, Jonesboro, Galesburg, Quincy, and Ottawa.
The format for these debates consisted of the first man talking for an hour, followed by the second man for an hour a half. Finally, the first man was allowed to retort for a half an hour. There were no questions from the audience. At the time, Illinois was divided as was much of the nation. The northern half of the state had become Republican, while the southern half was Democratic (Today, it is the exact opposite). There was no radio, TV, but there were plenty of newspapers there. Depending on the newspaper, the point of view of the debate was different.
The first debate was held in Ottawa. A crowd of 12,000 strained their ears to listen. Press from all over the nation took notice. The New York Tribune stated,
“Of the two, all partiality being left out of the question, we think Mr. Lincoln has decidedly the advantage. Not only are his doctrines better and truer than those of his antagonist, but he states them with more propriety and cogency, and with an infinitely better temper.”
And throughout that late summer and early fall, the two men met. Some days it was hot, some days it was cold. It is hard to get a true measure of who won each debate as each newspaper was fiercely loyal to the candidate they favored. That’s right, the press was biased back in 1858.. Papers like the Chicago Tribune extolled the virtues of Abraham Lincoln. Papers in southern Illinois propped up Douglas and his views on slavery.
Here is an example from an article entitled “Douglas and the Monkey Show” from the Illinois State Register in Springfield from August of 1858, four days before the debate in Ottawa.
August 23, 1858.
Correspondence of the Illinois State Journal.
This morning two steamers arrived at our landing, contained Col. Woods’ great show — the principle feature of which was Donetti’s performing monkeys and dogs. At noon, the great debater on negro equality, amalgamation, abolition and popular sovereignty, arrived on the cars from Lewistown. A large number ran to the boats to see the bearded woman, fat woman and the stream caliope, while an equal number were attracted to the part of town at which it was supposed Douglas would enter. There was about as much excitement and enthusiasm in the one crowd as in the other. From all I could see this evening, those who witnessed the monkey performance at the boats, are better pleased at their outlay of a quarter, than are those who heard the growling and saw the contortions of Douglas.
A crowd of 10,000 persons was promised today; but 2,500 people, nearly half of whom were Republicans, were all that came up to see the sights and hear the noises. I say half were Republicans, and this certainly seemed to be the cause, judging from their expressions favorable to Lincoln and derogatory to Douglas and his principles. A large number of Republicans have already arrived, who are delegates to the Congressional Convention to nominate a candidate to represent the fourth Congressional district. Three hundred persons from Mercer county alone, came in to-day for this purpose, and I observe Republicans delegates from Mason, Stark, Knox, Woodford, Tazewell and other counties.
Douglas spoke in the Court House Square at 3 o’clock this afternoon. There was little new in his harangue, other than ringing a few changes on “the lie,” “infamous liar,” “knave,” and such choice Senatorial language, applied to his competitors. In the commencement today, he only charged Lincoln with making an “infamous blunder,” instead of “infamous lie,” as he usually has it; but he soon changed the mild phase for that to which he is most accustomed , and it went off glibly from his tongue. The epithets of sneak, coward, liar, amalgamationist, were freely applied to his co-Senator, Trumbull. But the words fell heavily on his auditors. General disgust took the place of enthusiasm; and if Douglas daily loses 100 votes from his cause by such tirades, as it is confidently believed he does, at least twice this number came over to the Republican cause today.
A remarkable fact is, that there were scarcely any Germans, and even very few Irish in the crowd here. Another fact is, that here, where the Administration has numerous friends, he took pains to defend Buchanan as against Trumbull, a thing he has not done elsewhere. The truth is, Douglas is losing ground and has long since lost his temper. He feels his cause a sinking one, and he has a bout run his race. It would not be surprising for him to back square out of the race. His voice is failing, and he can scarcely pronounce his words. Standing six feet from him today, I observed that he omitted many of the smaller words entirely, and half the syllables of larger words; doing it in such a manner as to render it intelligible to a close observer, but very disagreeable. It is to be hoped that he will not entirely break down, for he is making Lincoln votes at every point he goes.
His winding up assertion was that Kellogg would be defeated this election in the fourth district, while the truth is, to hold his own he would receive some 1,600 majority, and those best posted say 3,000 is the least majority calculated on for him. Tomorrow is the convention at this place for making the nomination. It is understood that Kellogg will be nominated by acclamation. Addresses will be delivered by Mr. K. and other speakers, and in the afternoon Mr. Lincoln will speak to one of the largest audiences ever congregated in this part of the State. He arrived on the cars this evening and met with a warm reception by the committee of arrangements and the assembled delegates, who escorted him in carriages to the Peoria House.
A crowd of about 1,000 persons, three-fourths of whom were Republicans, gathered in the square this evening to hear a few small guns of the Douglas party. A large portion of the Simon pure preferred visiting the whisky shops, the effects of which visits are plainly visible on many who are attempting to hurrah for Douglas. As I write, cheers are going up for Lincoln in all directions, and the little dugout is taking his departure for Lacon, where speaks tomorrow.
Thursday morning, 19th. Several hundred delegates are assembling in the Court House hall to nominate Congressman for this district. Banners are flying from all the prominent points, inscribed with mottoes such as “Illinois is for Lincoln!” Hon. Wm. Kellogg will doubtless be nominated by acclimation. I will write you this evening the result of this day’s proceedings, which bid fair to be most harmonious and interesting.
This article gives you an idea of how newspapers reported the events of the day even from the headlines.
However, despite all the press, both negative and positive, Douglas would win re-election to the Senate.
Out of the debates came two very important things..
1. The issue of slavery was not going to be settled by a senatorial campaign in a then western state.
2. The Republican Party now had a spokesman who spoke eloquently about slavery. Lincoln was now a national figure of prominence. The Republican Party had a candidate that the North could understand.His eloquence and ability to weave a narrative, came across in these debates.
In two years time, the two candidates ran against each other for President of the United States. This time, Lincoln would win. Without the debates, Lincoln’s prominence as a national figure could not have been attained.
The Illinois State Register summed it up succinctly when they proclaimed after the Freeport Debate:
Aug. 30, 1858.
This has been a grand day for Lincoln and a glorious one for the Republican cause. The great discussion between Lincoln and Douglas has resulted in the overwhelming discomfiture of the “little giant.” He was completely wiped out and annihilated. To use his own choice vernacular, he was thoroughly “trotted through.” Lincoln “brought him to his milk” in a most triumphant manner.
And later in the article they added
What shall I say of the speaking? Lincoln made a most powerful speech, and charged home upon Douglas with a vengeance which was perfectly overwhelming. There was no escape from the coils which Lincoln wound around him, and his speech in reply was without spirit, without power and labored throughout. His platitudes about amalgamation and nigger equality — his only political stock in trade — were too old, too stupid to be listened to with patience. Lincoln’s half hour rejoinder was admirable, and clinched the argument of the first speech so that Douglas fairly squirmed under the infliction. At the close, cheer after cheer for Lincoln rent the air in prolonged shouts. The whole crowd seemed, with one voice, to join in the enthusiasm for “Old Abe,” while Douglas crawled off to his quarters like a whipped spaniel.
At night, and now while I write, a tremendous meeting is being held in front of the Hotel, and Lovejoy is making a speech every word of which brings the blood from the negroites. The Douglas followers tried to get up a meeting at the Court House, but failed. I close as I commenced, by saying this has been a grand day for Lincoln an a glorious one for the cause. — It is thought that Douglas, sick of his seven appointments, will decline to meet Lincoln in any further debate. If he will only keep on the track, every meeting will make hundreds of votes for us.
It was, after all, a different kind of debate.
There are two good websites on which to explore this topic even further
The first one is by Northern Illinois University. It provides a variety of resources and newspaper accounts of the debates.
The second web site is also good and uses footnoted resources in its recollections of the debate.