In contrast to the moody and cerebral Lincoln, Douglas was gregarious and ingratiating, with a gift for making every voter feel that he was speaking directly to him. "Douglas was a pure political animal," says James L. Huston, author of Stephen A. Douglas and the Dilemmas of Democratic Equality. "For him, the will of the majority was everything. He tells voters, ‘Whatever you want, gentlemen, that's what I'm for!'" In spite of poor health, he possessed such volcanic energy that he was known as "a steam engine in breeches." Within three years of arriving in Illinois from his native Vermont, in 1833, he won election to the state legislature. Four years after that, at 27, he was appointed to the State Supreme Court, and at 33 to the U.S. Senate. (In 1852, Lincoln, who had served a single undistinguished term in Congress, jealously complained, "Time was when I was in his way some; but he has outgrown me & [be]strides the world; & such small men as I am, can hardly be considered worthy of his notice; & I may have to dodge and get between his legs.")
On the great issue of their time, the two men could not have been more diametrically opposed. Although Douglas professed a dislike of slavery, his first wife, Martha, who died in 1853, had owned some
slaves in Mississippi—a fact he did not publicize. During the marriage, the sweat of slaves had provided the natty outfits and luxury travel that he relished. What Lincoln detested about slavery was not only the degradation of African-Americans but also the broader tyranny of social hierarchy and economic stagnation that the practice threatened to extend across America. But like many Northerners, he preferred gradual emancipation and the compensation of slave owners for their lost property to immediate abolition. "For Lincoln, slavery is the problem," says Guelzo. "For Douglas, it's the controversy about slavery that's the problem. Douglas' goal is not to put an end to slavery, but to put an end to the controversy."
For most of the 1850s, Douglas had performed a political high-wire act, striving to please his Northern supporters without alienating Southerners whose backing he would need for his expected run for the presidency in 1860. He finessed the looming slavery question by trumpeting the doctrine of "popular sovereignty," which asserted that settlers in any new territory had the right to decide for themselves whether it should be admitted to the union as a slave or free state. In 1854, Douglas had incensed Yankees by pushing the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress as popular sovereignty; it opened those territories to slavery, at least in principle. Nearly four years later, he angered Southerners by opposing the pro-slavery Kansas state constitution that President James Buchanan supported. As he prepared to face Lincoln, Douglas didn't want to offend the South any further.
Although we regard the debates today as a head-to-head contest for votes, in fact neither Lincoln nor Douglas was on the ballot. U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures, as they would be until 1913. That meant that the party holding the most seats in the state legislature could choose who to send to the Senate. Even this was not as straightforward as it seemed. The sizes of districts varied wildly as a result of gerrymandering, in Illinois' case by Democrats, who dominated state politics. In some Republican-leaning districts, for instance, it took almost twice as many votes to elect a legislator as in pro-Democratic districts. "Southern Illinois was Southern in outlook, and many people there sympathized with slavery," says historian Schwartz. "Northern Illinois was abolitionist. The middle section of the state, heavily populated by members of the old Whig Party, was politically fluid. Lincoln's challenge was to bring that middle belt over to the Republicans."
Each debate was to be three hours long. The candidates would address each other directly. The first speaker would deliver an hourlong opening statement; the second would then have the floor for an hour and a half. The first speaker would then return to the podium for a half-hour rebuttal. There were no restrictions on what they could say. Never before had an incumbent senator, much less one of Douglas' stature, agreed to debate his challenger in public. (Douglas assumed that his renowned oratorical powers would defeat Lincoln handily.) Excitement ran high. Tens of thousands of men, women and children flocked to the debates, which—in an age before television, national teams or mass entertainment—took on the atmosphere of a championship prizefight and county fair combined. "We were fed on politics in those days, and my twin sister and I would not have missed the debate for all the things in the world," Harriet Middour, an Illinois housewife who had attended the Freeport debate as a girl, would recall in 1922. Lincoln, whose campaign funds were limited, traveled modestly by coach. Douglas rolled along in style, ensconced in his own private railway car, trailed by a flatcar fitted with a cannon dubbed "Little Doug," which fired off a round whenever the train approached a town.
The two antagonists met first on August 21, 1858, in Ottawa, 50 miles west of Chicago. Douglas sneered that Lincoln was no more than a closet abolitionist—an insult akin to calling a politician soft on terrorism today. Lincoln, he went on, had wanted to allow blacks "to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to [sic] office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights." Lincoln appeared stiff and awkward and failed to marshal his arguments effectively. The pro-Douglas State Register crowed, "The excoriation of Lincoln was so severe that the Republicans hung their heads in shame."
Six days later at Freeport, Douglas still managed to keep Lincoln largely on the defensive. But Lincoln set a trap for Douglas. He demanded to know whether, in Douglas' opinion, the doctrine known as popular sovereignty would permit settlers to exclude slavery from a new territory before it became a state. If Douglas answered "no," that settlers had no right to decide against slavery, then it would be obvious that popular sovereignty would be powerless to stop westward expansion of bondage, as Douglas sometimes implied that it could. If Douglas answered "yes," that the doctrine permitted settlers to exclude slavery, then he would further alienate Southern voters. "Lincoln's goal was to convince voters that popular sovereignty was a sham," says Guelzo. "He wanted to make clear that Douglas' attitude toward slavery would inevitably lead to more slave states—with more slave-state senators and congressmen, and deeper permanent entrenchment of the slave power in Washington." Douglas took Lincoln's bait: "Yes," he replied, popular sovereignty would allow settlers to exclude slavery from new territories. Southerners had suspected Douglas of waffling on the issue. Their fear was now confirmed: two years later, his answer would come back to haunt him.
The debaters met for the third time on September 15 at Jonesboro, in a part of southern Illinois known as "Egypt" for its proximity to the city of Cairo. Once again, Douglas harangued Lincoln for his alleged abolitionism. "I hold that this government was made on the white basis, by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men and none others," he fulminated. He warned that Lincoln would not only grant citizenship and the right to vote to freed slaves but would allow black men to marry white women—the ultimate horror to many voters, North and South. Douglas' racial demagoguery was steadily taking a toll. Lincoln's backers feared that not only would Lincoln lose the election, but that he would bring down other Republican candidates. Finally, Lincoln counter-attacked.
At Charleston, three days later, Lincoln played his own race card. The debate site—now a grassy field between a trailer park and a sprawl of open sheds where livestock is exhibited at the county fair—lies only a few miles north of the log cabin where Lincoln's beloved stepmother, Sarah, still lived. On that September afternoon, Lincoln declared that while he opposed slavery, he was not for unequivocal racial equality. "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," Lincoln now asserted, "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."