In 1858, the United States of America was moving closer to disunion as two politicians from Illinois attracted the attention of the nation by their vigorous debates. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates were a sequence of political exchanges between the Republican, Abraham Lincoln who was the challenger and the Democratic Party candidate Stephen Douglas who was the incumbent senator. Douglas was eyeing to retain his senatorial seat while Lincoln was aiming at winning the position in the coming election.
The Causes of the Debates
Before and during the Civil War, slavery was an issue that divided the ideologies of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The framers of the U.S. Constitution primarily ignored slavery and its effects on the nation (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2014). The framers believed that the Southern states would not join the new nation without embracing slavery. The expansion of the nation led to new states joining the union, and the issue of slavery re-emerged. The Northern states wanted to keep slavery restricted to the Southerners. The South feared the entry of new countries as free states would minimize their power in Congress, and affect the institution of slavery severely. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 intensified the debate over the question of slavery. After the turmoil of the Mexican War, Congress passed the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was pushed by Stephen Douglas (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2014). The new law restricted the nation between borderlines. The political turmoil caused by the Kansas-Nebraska Act brought Abraham Lincoln to politics as a Republican. He challenged the speeches made by Douglas, and the exchanges between the two candidates led to the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
The Contents of the Debate
The first debate was held in Ottawa. Douglas was given the opportunity to start the debate where he accused Lincoln of trying to exterminate the Whig and Democratic parties (Lincoln Home, 2017). Douglas also accused Lincoln of attempts to transform Illinois into a free state. He also accused him of supporting the enemy during the Mexican War. Lincoln played defense and denied to respond to the questions. He instead charged Douglas with attempts to nationalize slavery. During the second debate, Lincoln answered all the question asked in Ottawa and directed four questions to Douglas. In response to Lincoln, Douglas formulated the Freeport Doctrine, which gave nations the right to protest against slavery. The third debate began with Douglas charging Lincoln for supporting racial equality (Lincoln Home, 2017). Lincoln denied accusations made by Douglas and quoted various documents and speeches by Democrats to prove they stated different things in various states
In the fourth debate, Lincoln explained his views on race. He charged Douglas for creating a constitution in Kansas without allowing the people to vote. He explained the Nebraska Bill was a conspiracy to nationalize slavery. Douglas denied all the accusations and restated his earlier claims that Lincoln was in favor of the equality of the races. The fifth debate was held in the campus of Knox College. Douglas took the platform to explain his opposition to the Lecompton Constitution. He further argued that the Declaration of Independence was written by the white men to apply only to white men. Lincoln rebutted Douglass comment regarding the Declaration of Independence and stated that it was meant to apply to all men. During the sixth debate, Lincoln denied accusations made by Douglas that he had said various things in different parts of the issue of slavery in states where the constitution allowed. Douglas denied that there was a conspiracy to nationalize slavery. He also refused to argue whether slavery is right or wrong by claiming that each state had their right to make a judgment on the matter (Lincoln Home, 2017). In the seventh debate, Douglas championed popular sovereignty and attacked Lincolns House Divided Speech. Lincoln argued that the Kansas-Nebraska Act revoked the Clays Missouri Compromise. Clays statements regarded slavery as evil, and Lincoln used the phrase to argue that Douglass exclusion of blacks from the Declaration of Independence was dehumanizing and robs them off their rights.
The Results of the Debate
The citizens in the 1858 elections voted neither Lincoln nor Douglas. However, Douglas won a popular election for the Senate in 1858 (Holzer, 2004). The names of the two candidates did not appear in the ballot boxes; thus, the people could not vote for their preferred candidate directly. The Democratic Party won more legislative seats than the Republicans did that year. Therefore, Douglas retained his seat as the senator and defeated Lincoln. Moreover, in the 1858 race for state treasurer, the Republicans fared better than the Democrats in the statewide popular vote. Lincolns Republicans also garnered more votes in the states nine congressional contests. Statistics indicate that the Republicans amassed a higher percentage of popular votes in the debate counties than they did in counties that did not hold the debate (Holzer, 2004). Overall, the debate attracted not only onlookers in the debate areas but also substantial out of county populations as well.
Constitutional Rights Foundation. (2014). The Lincoln-Douglas Debates- Springboard to the White House. Bill of Rights in Action, 29(3), 1-13.
Holzer, H. (2004). The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The first complete, unexpurgated text. Fordham University Press.
Lincoln Home. (2017). The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Retreived from https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/debates.htm
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