The series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A Douglas is held up as a standard of American democracy. Every school child was taught about how great and important they were, mostly without ever knowing what they debated about. The single topic that mattered was slavery and related themes like the recent Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court which said that slaves had no rights whatsoever.
The format was different than the debates we’re accustomed to. One speaker would go first, speaking an hour. The second would speak for an hour and a half, then the first speaker would have a half-hour to respond. Douglas and Lincoln alternated going first at each location. In some ways, the debates were highly recognizable, the first speaker making representations about his opponent, the other calling him a liar.
Douglas tried to paint Lincoln as an abolitionist. Lincoln did his best to let people know that while he was a Republican, he had no love for slaves and didn’t mince words saying so. I’ve critiqued current day Republicans who call themselves, “The Party of Lincoln,” but maybe they’re right after all. I encourage everyone to read the full text of the seven debates. If Lincoln had his way… I’ll let him speak for himself.
THE FIRST DEBATE — OTTAWA, ILLINOIS
“What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the South.”
“I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.”
“I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.”
SECOND DEBATE — FREEPORT, ILLINOIS
“ I do not now, or ever did, stand pledged against the admission of any more slave States into the Union.”
“ I do not stand to-day pledged to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.”
“ I do not stand pledged to the prohibition of the slave-trade between the different States.”
“ I have never hesitated to say, and I do not now hesitate to say, that I think, under the Constitution of the United States, the people of the Southern States are entitled to a Congressional Fugitive Slave law.”
THIRD DEBATE — JONESBORO, ILLINOIS
“ Let me ask you why many of us who are opposed to slavery upon principle, give our acquiescence to a Fugitive Slave law? Why do we hold ourselves under obligations to pass such a law, and abide by it when it is passed? Because the Constitution makes provision that the owners of slaves shall have the right to reclaim them. It gives the right to reclaim slaves, and that right is, as Judge Douglas says, a barren right, unless there is legislation that will enforce it.”
FOURTH DEBATE — Charleston, ILLINOIS
“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, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes. I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men.”
FIFTH DEBATE — GALESBURG, ILLINOIS
“The right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution of the United States. Therefore, nothing in the Constitution or laws of any State can destroy the right of property in a slave.”
SIXTH DEBATE — QUINCY, ILLINOIS
“I read an extract from an old speech of mine, made nearly four years ago, not merely to show my sentiments, but to show that my sentiments were long entertained and openly expressed; in which extract I expressly declared that my own feelings would not admit a social and political equality between the white and black races, and that even if my own feelings would admit of it, I still knew that the public sentiment of the country would not and that such a thing was an utter impossibility, or substantially that.”
SEVENTH DEBATE — ALTON, ILLINOIS
“I never have complained especially of the Dred Scott decision because it held that a negro could not be a citizen, and the Judge is always wrong when he says I ever did so complain of it. I have the speech here, and I will thank him or any of his friends to show where I said that a negro should be a citizen, and complained especially of the Dred Scott decision because it declared he could not be one. I have done no such thing, and Judge Douglas so persistently insisting that I have done so, has strongly impressed me with the belief of a predetermination on his part to misrepresent me. He could not get his foundation for insisting that I was in favor of this negro equality any where else as well he could by assuming that untrue proposition. Let me tell this audience what is true in regard to that matter; and the means by which they may correct me if I do not tell them truly is by a recurrence to the speech itself. I spoke of the Dred Scott decision in my Springfield speech, and I was then endeavoring to prove that the Dred Scott decision was a portion of a system or scheme to make slavery national in this country. I pointed out what things had been decided by the court. I mentioned as a fact that they had decided that a negro could not be a citizen-that they had done so, as I supposed, to deprive the negro, under all circumstances, of the remotest possibility of ever becoming a citizen and claiming the rights of a citizen of the United States under a certain clause of the Constitution. I stated that, without making any complaint of it at all. I then went on and stated the other points decided in the case, namely: that the bringing of a negro into the State of Illinois and holding him in slavery for two years here was a matter in regard to which they would not decide whether it would make him free or not; that they decided the further point that taking him into a United States Territory where slavery was prohibited by act of Congress, did not make him free, because that act of Congress, as they held, was unconstitutional.”
Please keep in mind that throughout these debates, Lincoln was the most favorable towards the elimination of slavery. I have no reason to doubt his claim he was personally opposed to the institution. However, he makes quite clear he was willing to accept its existence in the places it already existed. He agreed the Fugitive Slave Law was constitutional, he acknowledged the Constitutionality of the Dred Scott decision. He thought the slave morally and intellectually inferior and has at various times advocated they might all be sent to Liberia (but for the notion they’d be unable to survive there and would all die) or sent to colonize Central America.
Lincoln did eventually present The Emancipation Proclamation, not out of any conviction it was the right thing to do but to hurt the economy of the South and keep the recently enlightened France and Britain from forming an alliance with the South. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were very informative but have been misrepresented as to their greatness. It was as if George Wallace debated Strom Thurmond on what to do with the Negro. Read Lincoln’s words and let me know how much of a hero he was. It’s probably worth noting that Lincoln lost that Senate race.