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Bring up the topic of famous debates in history, and most folks think JFK-Nixon, “There you go again,” and “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” Ask them to go back before television, though, and you’ll primarily hear about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Though both men ran for president in 1860, Abraham Lincoln as the young Republican party’s second-ever nominee and Stephen Douglas as one of two nominees from the divided Democrats, their famous debates occurred in 1858, when Lincoln tried to unseat Douglas as one of Illinois’ senators.

1858 ambrotype of Lincoln by Samuel Alschuler (Northern Illinois University)

The format for the seven debates differs from the quick format we know today: each debate featured a one-hour opening speech, a ninety-minute rebuttal from the opponent, and a thirty-minute response by the first speaker. At most of the sites, crowds were estimated at 10,000 attendees or more. Newspapers printed the speeches and provided partisan commentary on the appearance of the speakers.

Not surprisingly, the common thread through the debates was the topic of slavery: should it expand? If so, how? Was it moral? If it wasn’t, was the political arena, especially on a national level, the place to deal with it?

Stephen Douglas in 1858 (Chicago Historical Society)

Lincoln had represented Illinois in the US House as a Whig in 1847 and 1848, but he lost the Senate race to the incumbent Douglas. The recognition he earned during the debates, however, served as a platform to the 1860 presidential race against Douglas and several other candidates, which Lincoln won.

In 1994, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were reenacted for C-SPAN and are all available for viewing on the web. Numerous other universities and historic sites have excellent resources regarding the debates, including images, newspaper articles, transcripts, and summaries.


Online resources:
–Lincoln/Net at Northern Illinois University (lots of newspaper sources plus images and more)
–National Park Service, Lincoln Home National Historic Site (including links to transcripts)
–Illinois in the Civil War
–The History Channel page on the debates