Douglas was in a political bind. His national ambitions demanded that he tack southwards, but it was clear that his political survival in Illinois required that he not cave in to Southern demands. He openly defied his party over the Kansas Constitution and managed to waffle on subservience to the Dred Scott decision, declaring that slavery could not survive in a territory, regardless of its legal status, if the local government did not pass and enforce a legal structure to protect it. (This would become known as the Freeport Doctrine, for its enunciation during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but he had actually articulated it long before Lincoln challenged him on it.)
The Kansas controversy produced one memorable line. In a meeting with President Buchanan, Douglas announced his intention of opposing the administration on the Lecompton Constitution. Buchanan bristled at the effrontery and declared to Douglas: "I desire you to remember that no Democrat ever yet differed from an Administration of his own choice without being crushed," to which the Illinoisian responded (in words suggestive of Lloyd Bentsen some 140 years later), "Mr. President, I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead."
The net result of this Democratic wrangling was that Douglas was viewed as vulnerable in 1858, and since he would be running without the support of his own Democratic Administration, he was vulnerable. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was widely unpopular in the North, and the nascent Republican Party was taking advantage of that fact, first by gobbling up anti-slavery Democrats defecting from the party, and second, by beating the ones that didn't defect. Illinois Republicans felt they had a serious chance of capturing the state legislature in 1858, which would mean the defeat of Douglas since senators were elected by the legislatures at this time. In an unprecedented move, the Illinois Republican Party met in mid-June and announced that they would elect Abraham Lincoln senator to replace Douglas, if they won control of the state. What would have been a diffuse and fractured political battle for the state assembly now became a man-to-man duel between two exceptional men.
Lincoln was not a surprise choice. He had worked hard to defeat Democratic candidates in 1854, had made a bid for the Senate seat then held by James Shields, and had been instrumental in the formation of the Illinois Republican Party. His willingness to step aside in favor of Lyman Trumbull in the 1856 Senate race had earned him much respect among Illinois free-soilers. However, Lincoln could not compete with Douglas's reputation and name recognition throughout the state. Nor could he compete with Republican support for his opponent. Numerous East Coast Republicans (including Horace Greeley, among others) were so encouraged by Douglas's stand against Buchanan on the Kansas question that they were inclined to support his re-election, a course which caused no little pain to the Illinois Republicans who so desperately wanted to elect their man. (Eventually the Eastern Republicans came into line with their Illinois brethren, but the Democratic breach was never entirely healed.)
Lincoln's speech to the state Republican convention, accepting their nomination for Senator, has gone down in American history for the ringing rhetoric of its opening sentences:
If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.(David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, p. 206; Allan Nevins, Douglas, Buchanan and Party Chaos, p. 361. I have stylistically followed Donald in typing this in; Nevins makes it one paragraph.)
We are now into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confidant promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.
Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented.
In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.
"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 disolved - 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 put it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.
But the later paragraphs contained an equalling ringing -- and totally false -- suggestion that the Dred Scott decision had been the result of a conspiracy between Douglas, Taney, former President Franklin Pierce, and sitting President James Buchanan. Douglas counterattacked forcefully, bluntly calling this assertion "infamously false" in a speech July 27, and followed up with what would be a constant refrain of his throughout the campaign, that Lincoln stood for Negro equality, a loaded charge in a state largely composed of transplanted Southerners.
Lincoln had at first planned to follow Douglas around the state, speaking in the same towns the next day. This simplistic strategy had an obvious flaw: Douglas, the better known man, drew large crowds, making Lincoln's efforts the next night appear poor by comparison. Lincoln then proposed a series of debates; Douglas hesitated to accept - - he of course had little to gain and much to lose -- but decided that the failure to accept the challenge would work more to his disadvantage than any advantage that Lincoln would gain.
Eventually it was agreed that the two candidates would appear jointly in each of the remaining seven Congressional Districts where they had not yet already both spoken. The "appearances" were no more true debates than today's politicized press conferences are. One man would open with an hour-long speech, to which his opponent could reply for an hour and a half, followed by a thirty minute rebuttal from the first speaker. Slavery was not only the dominant theme, it was virtually the only theme of the debates.
The debates were held in: Ottawa (August 21), Freeport (August 27), Jonesboro (September 15), Charleston (September 18), Galesburg (October 7), Quincy (October 13), and Alton (October 15). A full recapitulation of the debates would be beyond the scope of this lecture. However some brief comments are in order.
The debates were a huge event. Upwards of 10,000 people came to hear the opening round in Ottawa, and 15,000 came to Freeport. This was frontier American politics at its best.
Douglas followed a consistent strategy of trying to paint Lincoln as an extremist on the slavery and race issues, forcing the challenger on the defensive. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it did not. Sometimes Lincoln's homely visage and awkward frame seemed inconsistent with the high and dignified office he was seeking; sometimes his raw frontier wit and easy humor would have the crowd entirely in his corner. At one point he suggested that the best way to address the fears that Douglas had about racial equality in Illinois would be to remove Douglas from the US Senate and place him instead in the Illinois legislature.
Lincoln scored some important points. He was able to manuever Douglas into stating that his policy of popular sovereignty "contemplates that [slavery] shall last forever," and his famous question at Freeport (how could popular sovereignty be reconciled with the Dred Scott decision?) would cost Douglas Southern support in 1860. But his rhetorical high point was appropriately saved for the final debate at Alton. Summarizing the entire series of debates, he characterized the issues between himself and Douglas as a conflict "on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong -- throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings."
When the election results were tallied it was clear that the Democrats would retain control of the legislature and thus re-elect Douglas to the Senate. But a window to the future had been opened. Statewide, the Republicans had polled more votes than the Democrats. Lincoln's strong showing against the Democracy's "Little Giant" had made him something of a name in national Republican circles, even in defeat. That name would be remembered, two years hence.
At this point it might be useful to mention a few URL's for the debates that I have found. None of these have the full texts of the debates themselves -- something that I think would be a great addition to the Internet: