The Great Debates of 1858: Lincoln–Douglas

Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 1958 American Civil War commemorative issue postage stamp

In the Illinois U.S. Senate race of 1858, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln challenged incumbent Democratic candidate Stephen A. Douglas to a series of seven debates across the state. Because senators were elected by state legislatures at that time, Lincoln and Douglas were hoping their respective parties would win control of the Illinois General Assembly. 

Stretching from Freeport in northern Illinois to Jonesboro in southern Illinois, the debates attracted huge crowds, including visitors from neighboring states. Although Illinois was a free state, the chief issue of all seven debates was the extension of enslavement into the territories. Douglas advocated the doctrine of popular sovereignty, in which territorial settlers would make their own decision about enslavement. The Republican Party had formed mainly to keep enslavement out of the territories. Hostility between the parties threatened the Union, leading Lincoln to argue that the government could not “endure permanently half slave and half free”. While the Illinois General Assembly elected Douglas in the senatorial contest, Lincoln garnered enough popular support to prevail in the 1860 presidential race.

Learn more

Smith, George Washington, and John Y. Simon. 1993. When Lincoln came to Egypt. Herrin, Ill: Crossfire Press.