How Lincoln Bested Douglas in Their Famous Debates- page 5 | History | Smithsonian
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Douglas expected to crush his untried opponent in the enormously crowd-pleasing debates (Granger Collection, New York)

How Lincoln Bested Douglas in Their Famous Debates

The 1858 debates reframed America's argument about slavery and transformed Lincoln into a presidential contender

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Lincoln's appeal to higher morality towered over Douglas' personal attacks. "Everyone knew that Lincoln had turned in a stellar performance, and that he had bested Douglas," says Guelzo. "He managed not only to hold his own, but when they got to the end, Lincoln was swinging harder than ever."

Still, our perception of the debates is skewed by our admiration for Lincoln. "We are all abolitionists today—in Lincoln's arguments we can see ourselves," says Douglas biographer James Huston. "We sympathize with his perception of the immorality of slavery. Lincoln is speaking to the future, to the better angels of our own nature, while Douglas was speaking in large part to the past, in which slavery still seemed reasonable and defensible."

But while Lincoln may have won the debates, he lost the election. The "Whig Belt" went almost entirely for Douglas and the new legislature would re-elect Douglas 54 percent to 46 percent. Recent research by Guelzo tells a surprising story, however. By analyzing the returns district by district, Guelzo discovered that of the total votes cast for House seats, 190,468 were cast for Republicans, against 166,374 for Democrats. In other words, had the candidates been competing for the popular vote, Lincoln would have scored a smashing victory. "Had the districts been fairly apportioned according to population," says Guelzo, "Lincoln would have beaten Douglas black and blue." If the election was a triumph for anything, it was for gerrymandering.

Still, the debates introduced Lincoln to a national audience and set the stage for his dark-horse run for the Republican presidential nomination two years later. "Lincoln comes out of the debates a more prominent figure in Illinois and across the country," says historian Matthew Pinsker. "The key question facing him before the debates was: Can he lead a party? Now he has the answer: He can. He now begins to see himself as a possible president." Douglas had won re-election to the Senate, but his political prospects had been fatally wounded. In 1860, he would fulfill his ambition of winning the Democratic nomination for president, but in the general election he would win only one state—Missouri.

In the debates of 1858, Lincoln had also finally forced the coruscating issue of slavery out into the open. Despite his own remarks at Charleston, he managed to rise above the conventional racism of his time to prod Americans to think more deeply about both race and human rights. "Lincoln had nothing to gain by referring to rights for blacks," says Guelzo. "He was handing Douglas a club to beat him with. He didn't have to please the abolitionists, because they had nowhere else to go. He really believed that there was a moral line that no amount of popular sovereignty could cross."

Says Freeport's George Buss: "We can still learn from the debates. They're not a closed book."

Writer Fergus M. Bordewich's most recent book is Washington: The Making of the American Capital.

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