Last Lincoln v. Douglas Debate

The last of seven debates between the two Senate candidates took place on October 15th, 1858.

Composite image of portrait photographs of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen DouglasThe seven debates between the Democrat US senator for Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas, and his Republican rival for the senate seat, Abraham Lincoln, turned on slavery. Douglas had written the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed the inhabitants of new states to decide whether slavery should be legal in them. In 1857 the US Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case, which declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 banning slavery north of latitude 36º 20’ N to be unconstitutional, sharpened tensions on the issue.

Douglas still believed that the citizens of new states should be allowed to vote on whether to permit slavery. Lincoln argued for no further expansion of slavery anywhere, in the hope of its ultimate extinction throughout the United States.

The two of them agreed to take it in turn to open each debate and speak for an hour, followed by the other for an hour and a half, followed by the opener for the last half hour. Douglas spoke first at Ottawa on August 21st and in the final debate at Alton. Both men were in their forties, both were shrewd and intelligent, and both were commanding speakers. Douglas was short and broad, with a deep voice, Lincoln contrastingly tall and lean with a high voice.

The debates were held out of doors, drew large crowds and were widely reported in the press outside Illinois. Douglas maintained that Lincoln’s policy would lead to equality with whites for Negroes, who were seen as fundamentally inferior. Lincoln did not believe in racial equality either, he regarded slavery as morally, socially and politically wrong and a violation of the American constitution. The contest was widely considered a draw. Lincoln narrowly lost the Illinois election, but gained a national reputation which saw him win the presidential election of 1860.