Abraham Lincoln’s single term in the United States House of Representatives (1847-49) ended in disappointment and anticlimax, as he reluctantly left public life and returned to his law practice in Springfield, Illinois.
But his five-year midlife crisis would end in spectacular fashion with the passage in 1854 of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that blocked the extension of slavery above the 36th parallel. The new law threatened the western territories with the specter of slavery. Lincoln had long believed that the key to slavery’s eventual demise was its restriction to the states where it already existed. He later recalled that the passage of the Act “aroused him as he had never been before.”
The sponsor of the legislation was Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who had once been a rival of Lincoln’s for the affections of Mary Todd. Their clash would soon play out on a much larger stage.
Lincoln’s political comeback began with a stirring speech in Peoria on October 16, 1854, in which he lamented that with the passage of the Act, “Our republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust.” He urged his audience: “Let us repurify it.”
This project of purification began for Lincoln the following year when he ran unsuccessfully for one of his state’s two senate seats. It was a bitter disappointment, but did nothing to extinguish his ambition, which his law partner observed “was a little engine that knew no rest.” Though proud of the Whig Party, his lifelong political home, he was a leader in the creation of the new Republican Party in Illinois, which fused Whigs, antislavery Democrats, and others united in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This was the vehicle Lincoln hoped would carry him to the senate. In the end, it would take him much further.
Lincoln launched his senate campaign against Stephen Douglas on June 16, 1858, with a speech at the Illinois state capitol, declaring:
“A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”
Douglas profoundly disagreed: the point of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the principle of popular sovereignty, by which the residents of a territory would determine for themselves whether to allow slavery. The incumbent was unbothered by the institution; he saw popular sovereignty as the surest way of defusing a potentially destructive political issue. As much a patriot and Unionist as Lincoln, he found the moral case against slavery incomprehensible. And with the passage of his signature legislation, and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857 declaring that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit”, things appeared to be going his way.
The seven Lincoln-Douglas debates are justly remembered as the greatest in American history. The candidates made substantive political, philosophical, and moral arguments and treated their constituents to a formidable forensic display. And even though senators were then chosen by state legislatures, rather than individual voters, they were an important step toward mass democracy, as thousands of spectators came from miles around to see two formidable politicians debate the future of the nation.
The debates followed the same format. The first speaker would address the audience for one hour, after which the other would respond for ninety minutes. Then the first would have thirty minutes to close. Lincoln and Douglas took turns speaking first.
The rhetoric ranged from the coarse to the sublime. During the first debate, Lincoln responded to Douglas’s attacks by dismissing his arguments as a “specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse.” But he also condemned “the monstrous injustice of slavery” and lamented that it “deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.”
Not all of Lincoln’s rhetoric was uplifting. In the southern part of the state, where racist feelings ran especially high, Lincoln responded to Douglas’s attacks by disavowing any belief in racial equality: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” The forge of war would later burn away such beliefs.
At Galesburg Lincoln appealed to the better angels of his audience when he said of his opponent, “He is blowing out the moral lights around us, when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them; that he is penetrating, so far as lies in his power, the human soul, and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty, when he is in every possible way preparing the public mind, by his vast influence, for making the institution of slavery perpetual and national.”
In the final debate at Alton on October 15, Lincoln summed up his message: “It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world…It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
Douglas was unmoved, responding, “I care more for the great principle of self-government, the right of the people to rule, than I do for all the negroes in Christendom.”
Less than three weeks later, the state legislative elections yielded a Democratic majority in both houses. Lincoln was destined for defeat when the new legislature met in January. When asked how he felt about the loss, Lincoln replied, “Somewhat like that boy in Kentucky, who stubbed his toe while running to see his sweetheart. The boy said he was too big to cry, and far too badly hurt to laugh.”
He would have the last laugh when he faced Douglas again in an even greater contest two years later, emerging victorious as the 16th president of the United States. Through the saving of the Union and the abolition of slavery, he kept “the moral lights around us” burning.
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.