The Great Debates

Letter from Lincoln to Stephen A. Douglas, July 31, 1858

On June 16, 1858, Illinois’ Republican leaders nominated Lincoln to run against the Democrat incumbent Stephen A. Douglas for the U.S. Senate. Three weeks later, Lincoln spoke to a large crowd in Chicago. He roundly chastised Douglas for the Kansas-Nebraska Act and once again criticized the Dred Scott decision. At one point, Lincoln declared, “I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any abolitionist” but he also continued to promote gradual, compensated emancipation and colonization.

The two candidates further explored the slavery issue in a series of seven debates that attracted national attention. They held starkly different views. While Lincoln firmly opposed the extension of slavery, Douglas advocated the doctrine of popular sovereignty that allowed territorial settlers to vote “slavery up or down.” While Lincoln called slavery a great evil, Douglas insisted that each state or territory should decide moral issues for itself. Throughout the debates, Douglas persistently charged Lincoln with being an abolitionist who wanted to bring about full equality between blacks and whites, a radical position that would alienate many voters. Lincoln responded by denying that he favored equal civil or political rights for blacks, but he insisted that all persons were entitled to the inalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — as identified in the Declaration of Independence. Although Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, his performance in the Great Debates, as they became known, made him a rising star of American politics.