The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
By Rodney O. Davis, Douglas L. Wilson
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2008 Knox College Lincoln Studies Center
All rights reserved.
AUGUST 21, 1858
Senator Douglas selected as sites for the Lincoln-Douglas Debates "one prominent point in each congressional district in the state" save in those districts surrounding Chicago and Springfield, where each candidate had already given major speeches. He designated Ottawa, in the Third Congressional District, to be the location of his first meeting with Lincoln, on August 21.
Ottawa, Illinois, located eighty miles southwest of Chicago at the junction of the Fox and Illinois rivers, was in 1858 a town of about seven thousand citizens. Situated also on the Illinois and Michigan Canal and the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad, the town had unusual transportation advantages, which had contributed to its recent growth. Although LaSalle County, of which Ottawa was the seat, had delivered heavy Anti-Nebraska and Republican electoral majorities since the 1854 election, the town of Ottawa (where a number of Irish laborers on the canal continued to live after its completion in 1848) remained resolutely Democratic throughout the 1850s. Ottawa voters never supported their outspokenly antislavery Republican congressman Owen Lovejoy in an election, though he had garnered 57 percent of LaSalle County's votes in 1856 and would carry the county decisively again in 1858. All of this suggests that the crowd that probably doubled Ottawa's population on August 21 to hear Lincoln and Douglas may therefore have been fairly evenly divided along partisan lines, representing the dominant opinions of both Ottawa and its nearby environs.
On the day of the debate, that excited multitude assembled in the public square after a morning of informal but enthusiastic partisan parades and demonstrations that raised so much dust from Ottawa's unpaved streets that to an observer "the town resembled a vast smoke house" The heat was of the dreadful sort that is almost invariably produced in Illinois in late August, and was enervating to speakers and listeners alike—the latter being "unprotected by shade trees and unprovided with seats" as another observer noted. The debate, scheduled to begin at 2:00 PM, was delayed a half hour while portions of the throng were sometimes forcibly removed from the speaking platform, which they had occupied, leaving little room for the platform party. Others had climbed onto the wooden awning that gave the platform a little shade, in such numbers that it collapsed, apparently causing no major injuries but contributing further to the delay.
Douglas led off, and he almost immediately put Lincoln on the defensive with a series of radical resolutions that he claimed to constitute the Illinois Republican platform as adopted at Springfield in October 1854, and he demanded to know if Lincoln "stood pledged" to support that platform. After attacking Lincoln's "House Divided" speech and his opposition to the Dred Scott decision, Douglas asserted that Lincoln and the Republicans favored the total equality of blacks and whites. And he introduced a counter theme that he would repeat throughout the debates, that African Americans were inferior to whites, that the United States had been established "on the white basis," and that the status of blacks in America was a matter for states and territories to decide. Though he had come prepared with some arguments with which to confront Douglas, Lincoln was obliged to defer them and to respond instead to the senator by denying any connection with the radical 1854 platform with which Douglas had challenged him and caught him off guard. To counter further Douglas's charges of extremism, he read a lengthy portion of his speech delivered at Peoria in October 1854, in which he made clear his hatred of slavery and his conviction that African Americans were entitled to the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, but protested that he had no desire to promote the political and social equality of blacks and whites. Recurring then to his prepared positions, Lincoln reiterated the conspiracy theory first enunciated in his "House Divided" speech. He said that though the aim of the Founding Fathers had been to put slavery "in the course of ultimate extinction" Senator Douglas, Presidents Pierce and Buchanan, and Chief Justice Taney all schemed to nationalize slavery, via the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, and "the next Dred Scott decision," wherein the Supreme Court would decide that no state could exclude slavery, as it had already ruled that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature could do so.
In his rejoinder Douglas accused Lincoln of talking about everything but the radical platform of 1854 with which he had originally confronted him, and he challenged Lincoln to answer whether he endorsed it. And addressing Lincoln's charge that he was party to a conspiracy to nationalize slavery, Douglas branded it "an infamous lie" Douglas ended the debate by reiterating his insistence on the sovereign right of each state to decide the slavery question as well as other domestic questions for itself, thus denying Lincoln's doctrine of "uniformity between the different states" which Douglas professed to see in the "House Divided" speech.
The Ottawa debate, and the six that followed, attracted wide journalistic attention. They were covered by reporters and correspondents from the major Illinois newspapers in Chicago and Springfield, from Republican and Democratic papers in St. Louis, and by representatives from the press of Philadelphia and New York. Efforts made by the Democratic Chicago Times and the Republican Chicago Press and Tribune to provide verbatim transcriptions of the debates were somewhat unprecedented (given the shortage of reporters able to take shorthand) and controversial. The reporting of speeches by the intensely partisan newspapers of the mid-nineteenth century was simply expected to be biased; objectivity would not be a criterion for journalists for another half century or more. However, a higher standard of fairness, or at least accuracy, might be anticipated for transcriptions that purported to be literal. Nonetheless, a Press and Tribune commentator covering an earlier speech by Douglas at Beardstown, Illinois, had suggested that the Times's stenographic reporters had been hired "specially for their genius in exaggeration," and beginning at Ottawa, each of these papers accused the other of garbling its opponent's speeches, and enhancing those of its favorite.
Although Douglas may have seized the initiative at the beginning of the debates, it was established within two days of the Ottawa meeting that Lincoln had no responsibility for the radical platform that Douglas had read and with which he had created his initial advantage. It was discovered by Robert R. Hitt, the stenographic reporter for the Press and Tribune, that those resolutions had been adopted at a congressional district Republican meeting in northern Illinois in September 1854, rather than in the Springfield Republican gathering of that year, as Douglas had alleged. Indeed, the Springfield meeting's resolutions, with which Lincoln likewise had nothing to do, were far more moderate by comparison. Democratic newspapers only grudgingly admitted these facts, while Republicans capitalized on them, emphasizing Douglas's unfairness and misrepresentation of Lincoln and Republicans at the least, and his complicity in the use of forged documents at the most. Lincoln and his Republican journalistic allies would persist with these charges for the rest of the campaign.
A Note on the Use of the Word "nigger"
The word "nigger" was commonly used in Illinois at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and while its use by whites was recognized as a departure from more polite forms of address, it did not evoke widespread public disapproval. As used by whites, the term always expressed condescension toward blacks, often disrespect, and sometimes outright contempt. Significantly, the word was not used frequently in the debates, both candidates choosing to say "negro" or "negroes" most of the time. This underlines for us that both speakers resorted to it as a way of expressing an attitude or emphasizing a point. In the Ottawa debate, the word is used three times—twice by Lincoln and once by Douglas. Lincoln's uses of the word are, in both cases, ironic, part of a verbal strategy to show that Douglas's representation of his position is a mere caricature. In the first instance, he says Douglas "draws out from my speech this tendency of mine to set the states at war with one another, to make all the institutions uniform, and set the niggers and white people to marrying together." In the second, he ridicules the charge that making slavery national would entail war between the sections. "There is no danger that the people of Kentucky will shoulder their muskets and, with a young nigger stuck on every bayonet, march into Illinois and force them upon us." Douglas's use of the word is closer to contempt, for he characterizes Lincoln's position on natural rights as "preaching up this same doctrine of the Declaration of Independence that niggers were equal to white men."
The reporting of this emotionally charged word in the debates presents a difficulty, even though the reports of both papers reflect that the word was used relatively little. In accounts that totaled some 130,000 words, its reported uses by the debaters (as opposed to its occurrence in quoted material) totaled eight in the Press and Tribune and only two in the Times. But the latter, Douglas's paper, reported no instances of Douglas using the word, which strains credulity, given what other papers and witnesses reported. Lincoln's paper, by contrast, reported three uses of the word by its own candidate and five by Douglas, which constitutes a more plausible distribution. Inasmuch as reporting the word in Douglas's speeches was apparently editorially forbidden in the Times, the more even-handed reporting of the Press and Tribune is followed in all but one case.
DOUGLAS'S OPENING SPEECH
Ladies and gentlemen: I appear before you today for the purpose of discussing the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind. By an arrangement between Mr. Lincoln and myself, we are present here today for the purpose of having a joint discussion as the representatives of the two great political parties of the state and Union, upon the principles in issue between these parties, and this vast concourse of people shows the deep feeling which pervades the public mind in regard to the questions dividing us.
Prior to 1854, this country was divided into two great political parties, known as the Whig and Democratic parties. Both were national and patriotic, advocating principles that were universal in their application. An old line Whig could proclaim his principles in Louisiana and Massachusetts alike. Whig principles had no boundary sectional line. They were not limited by the Ohio river, nor by the Potomac, nor by the line of the free and slave states, but applied and were proclaimed wherever the Constitution ruled or the American flag waved over the American soil. [Cheers] So it was, and so it is with the Democratic party, which, from the days of Jefferson until this period, has proven itself to be the historic party of this nation. While the Whig and Democratic parties differed in regard to a bank, the tariff, distribution, the specie circular, and the sub-treasury, they agreed on the great slavery question which now agitates the Union. I say that the
Whig party and the Democratic party agreed on this slavery question, while they differed on those matters of expediency to which I have referred. The Whig party and the Democratic party jointly adopted the compromise measures of 1850 as the basis of a proper and just solution of this slavery question in all its forms. Clay was the great leader, with Webster on his right and Cass on his left, and sustained by the patriots in the Whig and Democratic ranks who had devised and enacted the compromise measures of 1850. In 1851, the Whig party and the Democratic party united in Illinois in adopting resolutions endorsing and approving the principles of the compromise measures of 1850, as the proper adjustments of that question. In 1852, when the Whig party assembled in convention at Baltimore for the purpose of nominating a candidate for the Presidency, the first thing it did was to declare the compromise measures of 1850, in substance and in principle, a suitable adjustment of that question. [Applause]
My friends, silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not your passions or your enthusiasm.
When the Democratic convention assembled in Baltimore in the same year for the purpose of nominating a Democratic candidate for the Presidency, it also adopted the compromise measures of 1850 as the basis of Democratic action. Thus you see that up to 1853-54, the Whig party and the Democratic party both stood on the same platform with regard to the slavery question. That platform was the right of the people of each state, and each territory, to decide their local and domestic institutions for themselves, subject only to the federal Constitution.
During the session of Congress of 1853-54, I introduced into the Senate of the United States a bill to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska on that principle, which had been adopted in the compromise measures of 1850, approved by the Whig party and the Democratic party in Illinois in 1851, and endorsed by the Whig party and the Democratic party in national convention in 1852. In order that there might be no misunderstanding in relation to the principle involved in the Kansas and Nebraska bill, I put forth the true intent and meaning of the act in these words: °"It being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leav the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the federal Constitution." Thus, you see, that up to 1854, when the Kansas and Nebraska bill was brought into Congress for the purpose of carrying out the principles which both parties had up to that time endorsed and approved, there had been no division in this country in regard to that principle except the opposition of the abolitionists. In the House of Representatives of the Illinois legislature, upon a resolution asserting that principle, every Whig and every Democrat in the House voted in the affirmative, and only four men voted against it, and those four men were old line abolitionists. [Cheers]
In 1854, Mr. Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Trumbull entered into an arrangement, one with the other, and each with his respective friends, to dissolve the old Whig party on the one hand, and to dissolve the old Democratic party on the other, and to connect the members of both into an abolition party under the name and disguise of a Republican party. [Laughter, cheers] The terms of the arrangement between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Trumbull have been published to the world by Mr. Lincoln's special friend, James H. Matheny, Esq., and they were that Lincoln should have Shields' place in the U. S. Senate, which was then about to become vacant, and that Trumbull should have my seat when my term expired. [Laughter] Lincoln went to work to abolitionize the old Whig party all over the state, pretending that he was then as good a Whig as ever [Laughter], and Trumbull went to work in his part of the state, preaching abolitionism in its milder and lighter form, and trying to abolitionize the Democratic party and bring old Democrats handcuffed and bound hand and foot into the abolition camp. [Cheers]
In pursuance of the arrangement, the parties met at Springfield in October, 1854, and proclaimed their new platform. Lincoln was to bring into the abolition camp the old line Whigs and transfer them over to Giddings, Chase, Fred° Douglass, and Parson Lovejoy and Farnsworth, who were ready to receive them and christen them in the new faith. [Laughter, cheers] They laid down on that occasion a platform for their new Republican party, which was to be constructed out of the old Whig party and the old Democratic party, by abolitionizing both and transferring them to abolitionism. I have the resolutions of their state convention then held, which was the first mass state convention ever held in Illinois by the Black Republican party, and I now hold them in my hands and will read a part of them, and cause the others to be printed. Here is the most important and material resolution of this abolition platform. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Lincoln-Douglas Debates by Rodney O. Davis, Douglas L. Wilson. Copyright © 2008 Knox College Lincoln Studies Center. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.