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A Constitutional History of the United States
Chapter XLII - The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
by McLaughlin, Andrew C.


The outstanding event of 1858 was the series of debates between Lincoln and Douglas, in a contest to secure the senatorship in Illinois. After his nomination at Springfield by the Republicans, Lincoln made a famous and oft-quoted speech; its most startling announcement — startling to those opponents of slavery who wished to put on the soft pedal and not shout aloud any principle that might work mischief to party policy or politics — was contained in the opening paragraph: " 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will 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 its advocates will push it forward rill it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South." This speech contains within itself the kernel of Lincoln's undeviating belief and the center of his unswerving purpose: slavery must not be allowed to expand. It must be placed, as he more elaborately declared at a later time, where the fathers left it, in the belief and the hope that it would in time disappear.[1]

But as far as the "house divided" principle or prophecy is concerned, there was not really much, if anything, new in it — little except its clarity and its peculiar applicability to the existing situation — , for what had Calhoun talked about for years save the irreconcilable enmity between slavery and the fell spirit of abolitionism, the danger to the union if slavery were condemned? [2] Lincoln's use of the Biblical quotation and his clear pronouncement of the essential hostility between slavery and freedom were impressive because of their solemn simplicity. They must have left on the minds of hearers and readers the assurance that mere palliatives or subterfuges could not unite a nation thus divided.[3] He believed that a movement was on foot for unifying the nation by making slavery national. His recognition of the essential strength of conflicting principles is proof of his statesmanship.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates had all the qualities of a stirring drama. Douglas was the leader of his party, still its most conspicuous man despite his quarrel with the administration. He was looked upon with favor by no small number of Republican politicians who were appreciative of his courage and tried to believe that he was their ally.[4] He was impressive by the very force of a strangely dominating personality, and was — to use Harriet Beecher Stowe's words — "the very ideal of vitality." Though prominent in state politics, Lincoln was comparatively unimpressive. But, as Douglas well knew, he could strike hard blows and had unusual skill in insisting upon critical and crucial points, and he could not easily be confounded and lost in the mists with which Douglas loved to enshroud an antagonist. But it is impossible for us to cover those debates or even briefly to outline them. We must content ourselves with one or two main matters of constitutional interest.

In doing this, we may first call attention to Lincoln's announcement of an essential difference between the Democrats and the Republicans: the Democrats did not say slavery was wrong. This may seem a matter quite without the field of constitutional history, but it was, of course, the center and the kernel of the great controversy that ended in the attempted disruption of the union. It would be folly to consider legislative disputes and not to recognize at all the warfare between moral principles and social beliefs. The heart of southern hostility to "Black Republicanism" was the Republican belief in the wrongfulness of slavery. "If there be a man in the Democratic party", said Lincoln, "who thinks it is wrong, and yet clings to that party, I suggest to him in the first place that his leader don't [sic] talk as he does, for he never says that it is wrong. In the second place, I suggest to him that if he will examine the policy proposed to be carried forward, he will find that he carefully excludes the idea that there is anything wrong in it.... When Judge Douglas says that whoever or whatever community wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong." [5]

Doubtless among the Democrats there were many who believed slavery a misfortune, if not morally wrong, but who preferred to let matters drift, dreaded sectional agitation, were influenced by the charges of "abolitionism" constantly heaped upon the Republicans, and were persuaded that at the bottom of Republican doctrine was the belief in the social equality of the black and white races. In appraising Lincoln's statement, we must remember he was debating against a party leader who did not announce his opposition to slavery; if there were Democrats who disagreed with Douglas, they were in the wrong party.

No words of mine can so clearly set forth Lincoln's party principles as does his own declaration: "Because we think it [slavery] wrong, we propose a course of policy that shall deal with it as a wrong. We deal with it as with any other wrong, in so far as we can prevent its growing any larger, and so deal with it that in the run of time there may be some promise of an end to it. We have a due regard to the actual presence of it amongst us, and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and all the constitutional obligations thrown about it. I suppose that in reference both to its actual existence in the nation, and to our constitutional obligations, we have no right at all to disturb it in the States where it exists, and we profess that we have no more inclination to disturb it than we have the right to do it. We go further than that: we don't propose to disturb it where, in one instance, we think the Constitution would permit us. We think the Constitution would permit us to disturb it in the District of Columbia.

Still we do not propose to do that, unless it should be in terms which I don't suppose the nation is very likely soon to agree to — the terms of making the emancipation gradual and compensating the unwilling owners. Where we suppose we have the constitutional right, we restrain ourselves in reference to the actual existence of the institution and the difficulties thrown about it. We also oppose it as an evil so far as it seeks to spread itself. We insist on the policy that shall restrict it to ' its present limits. We don't suppose that in doing this we violate anything due to the actual presence of the institution, or anything due to the constitutional guaranties thrown around it." [6]

To charge a man presenting such principles with being an abolitionist and advocating social equality between blacks and whites might be good tactics for winning votes, especially in southern Illinois, which had been peopled largely from the south; but such charges or insinuations were appeals to prejudices and passions. The people of the southern states saw in Republicanism all that was obnoxious to them in antislavery doctrine; the purpose of the "Black Republicans" was to stop at nothing in their zeal for social upheaval and the equalizing of the races. Was Douglas in any measure responsible for strengthening this conception of Republican doctrine? With this belief which the southerners held — doubtless because by 1858 their passions were so aroused that the time for calm questioning of purpose was passed — , they might well think their only salvation was in breaking the union and building bulwarks against the tide of fanaticism.

The Dred Scott decision naturally entered into the debates. To both combatants it presented difficulties. Lincoln had to find ground for refusing to be bound by the principle of a decision which he held false, for, if the Republicans accepted the decision as a legitimate statement of constitutional right, their calling was gone; their main purpose was no longer a legal purpose, if they advocated opposition to law and authority. On that matter Lincoln's position was as follows: "We do not propose that when Dred Scott has been decided to be a slave by the court, we, as a mob, will decide him to be free. We do not propose that, when any other one, or one thousand, shall be decided by that court to be slaves, we will in any violent way disturb the rights of property thus settled; but we nevertheless do oppose that decision as a political rule, which shall be binding on the voter to vote for nobody who thinks it wrong, which shall be binding on the members of Congress or the President to favor no measure that does not actually concur with the principles of that decision. We do not propose to be bound by it as a political rule in that way, because we think it lays the foundation not merely of enlarging and spreading out what we consider an evil, but it lays the foundation for spreading that evil into the States themselves. We propose so resisting it as to have it reversed if we can, and a new judicial rule established upon this subject."[7]

Is it necessary to discuss the legitimacy of this doctrine as a constitutional principle? From the acknowledgment of the Court's right and duty to interpret and apply the Constitution, as the Court views the Constitution, to the declaration that the Court by its decision fixes upon the Constitution an interpretation that must last forever and beyond, is a far cry. As a matter of practical and righteous politics, to "pack" a court in order to obtain a particular decision is, or may be, constitutionally immoral; to make the Court the plaything of party politics would be to vitiate much of what is sound and wholesome in our constitutional system. But can we deny also the right of the people — if necessary, by party agitation — to bring about an amendment to the Constitution? Some aspects of this subject we considered when speaking of Jackson's veto of the Bank bill. The Supreme Court has changed its mind — rarely, it is true, openly reversing a decision, but not so rarely by gradual and almost imperceptible modifications. Is it a constitutional necessity that such change should always be made without any manifest pressure from popular opinion? The result of popular sovereignty in Kansas appeared to demonstrate that the people there would practically outlaw slavery; if the principle of the Dred Scott decision were accepted, Congress would be under obligation to protect slavery in Kansas. Could no congressman, believing the Dred Scott principle false, refuse to vote for legislation affirmatively protecting slavery in Kansas? The question answers itself; and the answer justifies the assertion of a party's right to support congressmen opposing the spread of slavery. Whether the reader accepts this reasoning or not, it was asking a good deal of Lincoln, as matters then stood, to accept the decision, given in the manner we have described, as an unchanging and unchangeable constitutional principle.

Lincoln's position, then, was difficult: he must allay the anxiety of those who respected the Court and were naturally, above all, law-abiding; and he must at the same time announce the right of himself and his party to refuse recognition of a principle which they believed constitutionally unsound and politically unwholesome and perilous. It is unnecessary to take up his attack on the fateful decision as part of a conspiracy,[8] a conspiracy which might be aimed even at the authority of free states to maintain freedom. Portions of this attack now seem groundless or unimportant. But despite all Douglas's denials of intrigue, perhaps he was thinking, as he listened to Lincoln's telling indictment, of the fact (or probable fact) that the leaders of the Democratic party in 1854 had agreed on one thing — that the question of slavery in the territories should be relegated to the Court. If this meant that these leaders north and south would abide by a Court decision and accept the principle, the doctrine of popular sovereignty, as announced in the Nebraska bill and vehemently proclaimed by Douglas, was not a party declaration of fixed constitutional principle.[9] Perhaps Douglas had in mind — he might well have had — that the southern leaders would have an excuse for their bitterness, if they found him opposing the Dred Scott decision or so interpreting it as to deprive them of its effect.

If Lincoln and the Republicans were confronted with trouble because of the Dred Scott case, Douglas and the Democrats were in even greater difficulty. To make that difficulty plain to the voters was Lincoln's task. The Court's decision was in direct conflict with the doctrine of territorial sovereignty: the existence of slavery in the territories was legal; no territorial government, the creature of Congress, could do more than Congress itself, and Congress could not invalidate slavery. There followed as a logical consequence the duty of the territorial legislature to protect slavery by positive legislation as it would other property, and the duty of Congress to act similarly, if need be.

The year before the debates began, Douglas had taken a position on this matter: the right to hold slaves in any territory could not be taken away by act of Congress, but it remained "a barren and worthless right, unless sustained, protected, and enforced by appropriate police regulations and local legislation, prescribing adequate remedies for its violation. These regulations and remedies must necessarily depend entirely upon the will and wishes of the people of the Territory, as they can only be prescribed by the local legislatures." [10] Lincoln succeeded in getting Douglas to make this statement again, and the statement is commonly called the Freeport, or "unfriendly legislation", doctrine. Lincoln asked: "Can the people of a Territory in any lawful way, against the wishes of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State constitution?" The reply was almost indignant: "I answer emphatically, as Mr. Lincoln has heard me answer a hundred times from every stump in Illinois, that in my opinion the people of a Territory can, by lawful means, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State constitution.... It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter [!] decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere unless it is supported by local police regulations."[11] If the people, he said, are opposed to slavery, they will elect representatives to the local legislature who will by "unfriendly legislation" prevent its introduction. An interesting example this, of a method of debate; for why did Douglas say "hereafter"? And how clever the choice of the word "unfriendly"![12] This doctrine of "unfriendly legislation" Lincoln attacked in his speech at Jonesboro, but his most telling assault was made later, at Columbus, Ohio (September 16, 1859), when he exposed it free from "the trash, the words, the collateral matter" as "a bare absurdity: — no less than that a thing may be lawfully driven away from where it has a lawful right to be." [13] Douglas's doctrine of "unfriendly legislation" is commonly considered the death-knell of his prospects for southern support, and that may be true, but his reply to Lincoln's question at Quincy, October 13, was in fact equally damaging, if he hoped to maintain party agreement on slavery. He had been asked, if "a slaveholding citizen of one of the Territories should need and demand a slave code to protect his slaves", he would vote for such a measure. His reply was: "I answered him that a fundamental article in the Democratic creed, as put forth in the Nebraska bill and the Cincinnati platform, was non-intervention by Congress with slavery in the States and Territories, and hence that I would not vote in Congress for any code of laws either for or against slavery in any Territory. I will leave the people perfectly free to decide that question for themselves." [14]

As we have already seen, the vital question for six years after the repeal of the Compromise was the question whether or not the Democratic party could be maintained as an effective body. Douglas had defied the administration on the Lecompton issue; now Lincoln was successful in bringing home to the people the impossibility of reconciling the Dred Scott decision and popular sovereignty; not even the agile Douglas could ride two horses, going in different directions. The southerners were wroth with him. Lincoln stood forth as a national character, associated at the south with the menace of "Black Republicanism", abolition, and racial equality. He was recognized at the north as one able to meet the redoubtable Douglas in debate and as a clear exponent of the resolve not to allow the further spread of slavery. He had perhaps overemphasized the danger of slavery's inundating the free states or bringing them under the domination of slaveholding purposes and ideals; but he accepted the constitutional duty of upholding the fugitive slave law, and disclaimed all aim of interfering with slavery where it already existed. He made no announcement of social equality of white and black, quite the contrary; but he asserted that no man could rightly be made a chattel because of his color. He summoned to his aid such Democrats as believed slavery wrong, and he made an appeal to the old-time Whigs by proclaiming Henry Clay his "beau ideal of a statesman".[15] He thus gained adherents for his party and helped also to place it, in a certain degree at least, on a conservative basis. It was a liberal party because it was arrayed against the extension and towering influence of a great economic interest, because it appealed to the primary sources of liberal sentiment and asked for a recognition of fundamental human rights, and because it tended also to frighten the conservative business interests of the north which dreaded disturbing contests. But it was conservative because it made little or no appeal to the extreme antislavery men, and because it placed emphasis on one practical idea — opposition to the spread of slavery, but obedience to law. It was conservative because it summoned to its standard the great body, probably, of northern Whigs, and the Whigs had been socially and temperamentally conservative in their attitude toward authority, finance, and business stability.

Douglas won the election in Illinois. The legislature chose him as his own successor in the senatorship. But in electing the lower house of the legislature, some sixteen thousand more votes were cast by the supporters of Lincoln than were cast by the Douglas supporters. The vote for the state senate disclosed a similar condition, and the Republican candidates for the state offices were elected. Douglas might well have exclaimed with Pyrrhus, "Another such victory and we are lost!" In the autumn after the election, Douglas, traveling in the south, gave even there his doctrine of "unfriendly legislation" or the practical equivalent. He adhered to the decision of the Supreme Court, he said, and that decision allowed the southerner to take his slave property into a territory, but once there, his property was dependent on local law; if the legislature failed to protect the property, the ownership was of little or no value — "Non-action is exclusion." [16] His apparently frank statements were nothing less than pathetic; and in the following months his failure to reconcile incompatibles became daily more apparent. Brown of Mississippi in the Senate declared the legislature of Kansas must protect slavery, and if it did not do so, Congress must act. Jefferson Davis, now the leader of the southern Democracy, the heir of Calhoun but with a larger and more united constituency, and like the great master a man of intellectual vigor, pointed out plainly the duty of Congress: a territorial legislature, the creature of Congress and its agent, could not exclude slavery, and if slavery was in jeopardy, Congress must see that such property was protected by affirmative legislation.

But there was much more than this mere conflict between theories; Douglas and Davis, one the northern leader, the other the southern Democratic leader, now declared the impossibility of further co÷peration. "I tell you, gentlemen of the South," said Douglas, "in all candor, I do not believe a Democratic candidate can ever carry any one Democratic State of the North on the platform that it is the duty of the Federal Government to force the people of a Territory to have slavery when they do not want it." [17] "I should have been glad," Davis declared, "if the Senator, when he appeared in the Senate, had answered the expectation of many of his friends, and by a speech here have removed the doubt which his reported speeches in the last canvass of Illinois created.... He has confirmed me, however, in the belief that he is now as full of heresy as he once was of adherence to the doctrine of popular sovereignty, correctly construed...." [18] Driven along by the persistent questioning of Davis, Douglas answered in much the same way as he had previously answered Lincoln.[19] "... I will vote against any law by Congress attempting to interfere with a regulation made by the Territories, with respect to any kind of property whatever, whether horses, mules, negroes, or anything else." [20] The "Little Giant", though clad in heavy armor, was in no enviable position when attacked by Lincoln on one side and Davis on the other.

Lincoln's campaign, as well as the attitude of Douglas on the Lecompton question, was producing results. Douglas was deposed from his position as chairman of the committee on territories. The south saw in him a traitor to the cause. He still could count upon the support of northern admirers, but as a national leader of a united party his reign was over. He continued to write and speak with an impressive cleverness that need not be termed sagacity. The constitutional fact is just this: however Douglas might reason, if the Dred Scott decision were good law, then southerners had the right to carry their slave property into the territories; Congress had full authority over the territories — organized or not — subject to the limitations set down in the Constitution; one of these limitations — the fifth amendment — provided protection for property.

He continued to defend his interpretation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act: "It was agreed [1854] that while we might differ as to the extent of the power of the Territorial Legislature on these questions, we would make a full grant of legislative authority to the Legislature of the Territory, with the right to pass such laws as they chose, and the right of anybody to appeal to the court to decide upon the validity and constitutionality of such laws, but not to come to Congress for their annulment." [21] Douglas (February 23, 1859) quoted at length a speech of Senator Benjamin of Louisiana, made in 1856, in which that Senator pointed to the disagreements between the northern and southern Democrats concerning the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and declared that they had " 'agreed that every question touching human slavery or human freedom should be appealable to the Supreme Court of the United States for its decision.' " [22]

There is no use in wearying the reader with an account of how persistently the "Little Giant" struggled. One or two things are plain: congressmen are not under legal obligation to provide legislation for carrying out a principle of a judicial decision of which they disapprove. But if the Kansas-Nebraska bill really referred the question of territorial slavery to the Supreme Court, it is reasonable to infer that the men who concocted the bill hoped in that way to settle the controversy which threatened the party, and expected that, if judicial determination upheld the legality of slavery in the territories, the makers of the bill would act accordingly. Any assertion of Douglas to the contrary leaves one cold, the prey of consuming skepticism.


[1] In his reply to Douglas at Quincy, October 13, 1858. See Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works (J. G. Nicolay and John Hay, editors), I, p. 480. This contention is especially elaborated in the Cooper Institute speech of February 27, 1860 — a very astute, adroit, and sound use of historical evidence, directed in part to establish that the fathers believed the national government could exclude slavery from national territory. Ibid., I, p. 599 ff.

[2] Calhoun wrote in 1850: "Nothing short of the terms I propose, can settle it [the great question of the day] finally and permanently. Indeed, it is difficult to see how two peoples so different and hostile can exist together in one common Union." Letter to T. G. Clemson, March 10, 1850. Correspondence of John C. Calhoun, Am. Hist. Asso. Report for 1899, II, p. 784.

[3] Lincoln's speech was made June 16, 1858. Seward's "irrepressible conflict" speech (October 25, 1858) contained the same sentiment and attracted much attention: "It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free-labor nation."

[4] A brief, clear statement is given in Allen Johnson, Stephen A. Douglas, pp. 348-349.

[5] Speech at Quincy, October 13, 1858. Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works (J. G. Nicolay and John Hay, editors), I, p. 464.

[6] Ibid., I, pp. 462-463.

[7] Ibid., I, p. 463.

[8] Referred to in his speech at Springfield, June 16, 1858, and later.

[9] Notice Douglas's speech (July 2, 1856), Congressional Globe, 34 Cong., 1 sess., appendix, p. 797, which has been already referred to in the chapter on the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Speaking of the Nebraska bill, he said: "I should have supported it just as readily if I thought the decision would be one way as the other." "... I stated I would not discuss this legal question, for by the bill we referred it to the courts." Italics mine. If the reader can discover what this statement makes out of popular sovereignty as a principle of constitutional authority, he will do well. See also the speech of J. P. Benjamin in the Senate (May 2, 1856), Ibid., 34 Cong., 1 sess., p. 1093.

[10] Quoted in Johnson, op. cit., p. 322.

[11] Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works (J. G. Nicolay and John Hay, editors), I, p. 315. Trumbull had in 1856 tried to get Douglas to say positively whether in his opinion a territorial legislature had a right to establish or exclude slavery. Douglas replied that it was a "judicial question, left by the bill to the courts for decision." Congressional Globe, 34 Cong., 1 sess., pp. 1371, 1374.

[12] This "hereafter" arose to make trouble in the Democratic convention of 1860. See also the platform of the Douglas Democrats in that year. It is interesting to note that a few days later (at Jonesboro, September 15) Douglas said: "I wish to say to you. fellow-citizens, that I have no war to make on that decision, or any other ever rendered by the Supreme Court. I am content to take that decision as it stands delivered by the highest judicial tribunal on earth, a tribunal established by the Constitution of the United States for that purpose, and hence that decision becomes the law of the land, binding on you, on me, and on every other good citizen, whether we like it or not." Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works (J. G. Nicolay and John Hay, editors), I, p. 343.

[13] Ibid., I, pp. 551-552. It is worthy of note that Douglas, in a speech at Alton, October 15, 1858, quoted the "able and eloquent statesman", Jefferson Davis, as upholding the Freeport doctrine. Davis, it should be pointed out, said that if the inhabitants of a territory should refuse to pass laws and police regulations for securing their property, "it would be rendered more or less valueless in proportion to the difficulties of holding it without such protection." If the property were slave property, "the insecurity would be so great that the owner could not ordinarily retain it. Therefore, though the right would remain, the remedy being withheld, it would follow that the owner would be practically debarred, by the circumstances of the case, from taking slave property into a Territory where the sense of the inhabitants was opposed to its introduction." See Ibid., I, p. 494. We have no right to suppose the south would calmly accept the nullification of a legal right. And we should notice that Douglas's Freeport doctrine was in answer to Lincoln's question whether the exclusion of slavery could be secured in any lawful way.

[14] Ibid., I, p. 475.

[15] For example: "Henry Clay ... once said of a class of men who would repress all tendencies to liberty and ultimate emancipation, that they must, if they would do this, go back to the era of our independence, and muzzle the cannon which thunders its annual joyous return ... !" Again, he quoted Clay as lamenting slavery and as ' saying, "If a state of nature existed, and we were about to lay the foundations of society, no man would be more strongly opposed than I should be, to incorporating the institution of slavery among its elements." Ibid., I, pp. 299, 502.

[16] Johnson, op. cit., pp. 393-394.

[17] Congressional Globe, 35 Cong., 2 sess., p. 1247.

[18] Ibid., p. 1257.

[19] Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works (J. G. Nicolay and John Hay, editors), I,

p. 367.

[20] Congressional Globe, 35 Cong., 2 sess., p. 1259. Davis said in reply, "Then, as I understand the Senator, ... it is that he offers to us the proposition that the constitutional rights shall be submitted to the Supreme Court, and now announces that, whatever may be the decision of the Supreme Court, he will not legislate for the protection of the rights thus guarantied." Ibid. Further light (or darkness) is thrown on Douglas's position by his statement in Ibid., p. 1244.

[21] February 23. 1859. Ibid., p. 1245.

[22] Ibid., p. 1258.

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