Key point: Even today, students study this debate and use their orator skills to sharpen each other intellectually. These debates helped make Honest Abe a national figure and set the stage for his rise to the Presidency.
The two men facing each other across the debate stage at Ottawa, Illinois, on the afternoon of August 21, 1858, were no strangers to one another. Indeed, Senator Stephen Douglas and former one-term congressman Abraham Lincoln had been personal and political opponents—and more or less friendly neighbors—for the better part of two decades. But in ways neither man could imagine, their rivalry was about to grow exponentially and capture the attention of an increasingly divided nation. They would speak to each other, and the rest of the country, in “thunder tones,” as Lincoln would report. And everyone hears thunder when it rolls.
The Arrival of Lincoln and Douglas to Illinois
Few political opponents had ever known each other as well or as long as Douglas and Lincoln. Almost from the time they arrived in their adopted home state of Illinois, 16 months apart, in 1831-1832, they had been fated to be rivals on the local, state, and national scene. Lincoln, who was four years older, got there first, literally washing up on the shore of the tiny village of New Salem in the spring of 1831. Residents of the little village awoke one late April morning to see a tall, homely young man sweating mightily in the middle of the Sangamon River, striving to dislodge his makeshift flatboat from its grounding on a dam in the river’s shallows. By the simple but ingenious method of drilling a hole in the boat’s foredeck and shifting barrels of goods to the rear, the boat was tipped over the dam and back into the river. Lincoln and his three companions went on their way, but two months later he returned and settled down in New Salem, where he quickly struck townsfolk as “a very intelligent young man.” Lincoln had made his first significant public impression.
Douglas’s arrival in Illinois 19 months later was considerably less dramatic. He simply rolled into Jacksonville, the seat of Morgan County, aboard a stagecoach in the middle of the night on November 2, 1833. Not yet 21, Douglas had less than $5 in his pocket when he arrived. Like Lincoln, he was following the well-worn path of young men seeking their fortunes on the westward frontier. The chance to reinvent himself in new surroundings was particularly appealing to both Lincoln and Douglas, each of whom was leaving behind a less-than-idyllic home life. Lincoln and his hard-working taciturn father, Thomas, had always had a distant relationship, and by the time he left home, the younger Lincoln had developed a lifelong aversion to physical labor and a thirst to explore the “wider and fairer world” beyond the borders of their Indiana farm.
Douglas, whose own physician father had died when he was two months old, had grown up in Vermont and upstate New York, where he took an early interest in politics and studied law with the leading Democratic politician in Canandaigua, New York, before setting out for the West to seek his fortune. When his mother asked when she would see him again, Douglas responded, “On my way to Congress.” He immediately set out to back up his words, winning election as state’s attorney for the First Judicial District in Illinois in 1834 by a mere four votes and bragging in a letter home that he was “doing as well in my profession as could be expected of a boy of twenty-one.”
One of the new legislators Douglas met in the halls of the state capital at Vandalia was Abraham Lincoln, who had won his own first election (on his second try) to the legislature. Exactly when and how the two men met is unknown. Lincoln later recalled vaguely in 1859 that it had taken place “twenty-two years ago.” Douglas never mentioned a first meeting at all. From the start they were on opposite sides of the aisle: Lincoln was a Whig and Douglas was a Democrat. Whigs, primarily northern and Midwestern in origin, were the party of small shop owners, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, and tradesmen; Democrats, the party of Andrew Jackson, centered their strength in the agrarian South. Whigs favored a weak president, a powerful Congress, and a centralized government that provided a solid infrastructure for interstate trade and commerce. Democrats wanted a strong president but also, conversely, a system based on states’ rights. In the South, of course, the major states’ right was the right to own slaves. On that issue the two parties were fated to do battle.
Lincoln’s Decline, Douglas’ Rise
By the time Lincoln and Douglas became politically active in the late 1830s and 1840s, the issue of slavery was a settled fact. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had outlawed the expansion of slavery into new territories above the 36th Parallel, with the exception of Missouri. The compromise held until the Mexican War, conducted by Democratic President James K. Polk, greatly added to American territories in the West. Whigs, including then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln, opposed the war as a naked power grab by Southern slave owners to expand their reach. A new compromise, in 1850, allowed the recently acquired territory of California to enter the Union as a free state but also put into place a federal Fugitive Slave Law that required Northerners to assist in the return of runaway slaves to their Southern owners. One of the leaders of the Compromise of 1850 was Stephen Douglas, then serving as a U.S. senator.
Lincoln’s opposition to the Mexican War led to his defeat after only one term in Congress. He returned to the private practice of law in his adopted hometown of Springfield, Illinois, while Douglas ascended to the heights of power in the Senate. Douglas also called Springfield home, and he and Lincoln crossed swords several times in the decade prior to the 1850 Compromise. Besides their usual political differences, the two men were also rivals for the hand of a vivacious young Springfield debutante, Kentucky-born Mary Todd. The bright, talkative Mary was a more compatible match for Douglas than she was for the awkward, plain-spoken Lincoln. She and Douglas flirted across Springfield drawing rooms and went on long, chatty walks together. But as a lifelong Whig and a family friend of party leader Henry Clay, Mary could not commit to the Democrat Douglas. “I liked him well enough, but that was all,” she said later. Instead, she married Lincoln in November 1842. It was a marriage based at least as much on political as romantic grounds, but against all odds, it endured for nearly a quarter of a century.
Popular Sovereignty: “A Hell of A Storm”
Following his failure to win reelection to Congress, Lincoln concentrated on his legal career, becoming a highly paid corporate lawyer for a number of Eastern and Midwestern railroads. Meanwhile, Douglas rose to nearly the summit of national politics, becoming the leading Democrat in the Senate and barely losing his party’s presidential nomination to dark horse candidate Franklin Pierce in 1852. As a spokesman himself (and investor) for powerful railroad interests, Douglas championed a new transatlantic railroad. The proposed line he favored would cross the then unincorporated Nebraska Territory en route from Lake Superior to Puget Sound, Washington. “It is utterly impossible to preserve that connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific,” Douglas complained, “if you are to keep a wilderness of two thousand miles in extent between you.” Southern Democrats, however, were in no hurry to create another territory north of the Missouri Compromise line. Missouri Senator David Atkinson, a leading opponent, succinctly spelled out the Southern position. They were willing to see Nebraska “sink in hell” before allowing it to enter the Union as a free state.
Douglas, seeking a way around the opposition—and also a way to protect his recent purchase of 6,0000 acres at the Illinois terminus of the proposed route—sponsored a bill to divide the territory into two parts—Nebraska and Kansas. In theory, this would create a new free state, Nebraska, and a new slave state, Kansas, based on the preferences of their closest neighbors—Iowa and Missouri. It would leave the ultimate decision in the hands of the residents, a move Douglas termed “popular sovereignty.” He reluctantly accepted an amendment to his proposed bill that would repeal the Missouri Compromise in the new territories, although he warned that the change would “raise a hell of a storm.”
“A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand”
That storm was not long in coming. The day after he introduced his Kansas-Nebraska bill in the Senate, a group of abolitionist lawmakers released a statement condemning Douglas’s proposal as “a gross violation of a sacred pledge; a criminal betrayal of precious rights; part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own states, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism inhabited by masters and slaves.” Douglas, they said, was hatching a monstrous plot to spread “the blight of slavery” across the land and “subjugate the whole country to the yoke of a slaveholding despotism.” Douglas responded that he was merely attempting to insure the survival of “a great principle of self-government,” to “allow the people to legislate for themselves upon the subject of slavery.”