How Lincoln Bested Douglas in Their Famous Debates

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

Douglas expected to crush his untried opponent in the enormously crowd-pleasing debates (Granger Collection, New York)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

Ugly though it was, Charleston would prove to be the debates' turning point. Until that moment, Lincoln had been on the defensive. But a shift in public perception was underway. "People suddenly realized that something extraordinary was going on, that Douglas had failed to vanquish Lincoln," says Guelzo. "From now on, Lincoln was like Rocky Balboa."

The debaters' next venue was Knox College in the western Illinois town of Galesburg, a bastion of evangelical religion and abolitionism. On the day of the debate, October 7, torrential rains and gusting winds sent campaign signs skittering and forced debate organizers to move the speakers' platform, sheltering it against the outside wall of the neo-Gothic Old Main hall. The platform was so high, however, that the two candidates had to climb through the building's second-floor windows and then down a ladder to the stage. Lincoln drew a laugh when he remarked, "At last I can say now that I've gone through college!"

"It took Lincoln several debates to figure out how to get on the offensive," says Douglas L. Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College. "Unlike Douglas, who always said the same things, Lincoln was always looking for a new angle to use. Rather, Lincoln's strategy was about impact and momentum. He knew that at Galesburg he'd have a good chance to sway hearts and minds."

The atmosphere was raucous. Banners proclaimed: "Douglas the Dead Dog—Lincoln the Living Lion," and "Greasy Mechanics for A. Lincoln." Estimates of the crowd ranged up to 25,000.

When Lincoln stepped forward, he seemed a man transformed. His high tenor voice rang out "as clear as a bell," one listener recalled. Without repudiating his own crude remarks at Charleston, he challenged Douglas' racism on moral grounds. "I suppose that the real difference between Judge Douglas and his friends, and the Republicans on the contrary, is that the Judge is not in favor of making any difference between slavery and liberty...and consequently every sentiment he utters discards the idea that there is any wrong in slavery," Lincoln said. "Judge Douglas declares that if any community want slavery, they have a right to have it. He can say that, logically, if he says that there is no wrong in slavery; but if you admit that there is a wrong in it, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong." In the judgment of most observers, Lincoln won the Galesburg debate on all points. The pro-Lincoln Chicago Press and Tribune reported: "Mr. Douglas, pierced to the very vitals by the barbed harpoons which Lincoln hurls at him, goes around and around, making the water foam, filling the air with roars of rage and pain, spouting torrents of blood, and striking out fiercely but vainly at his assailant."

Six days later, the debaters clashed again at the Mississippi River port of Quincy, 85 miles southwest of Galesburg. "The debate was the biggest thing that ever happened here," says Chuck Scholz, the town's former mayor and a history buff. Scholz, who led Quincy's urban renewal in the 1990s, stands in Washington Square, the site of the debate, among cherry and magnolia trees in glorious bloom. "From where they stood that afternoon, the choice facing voters was pretty stark," says Scholz. "Here they were on the free soil of Illinois. Within sight across the river lay the slave state of Missouri."

Lincoln came on aggressively, building on the same argument he had launched the week before. Although the Negro could not expect absolute social and political equality, he still enjoyed the same right to the freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that were promised to all by the Declaration of Independence. "In the right to eat the bread without the leave of anybody else which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every other man," Lincoln declared. Douglas, ill with bronchitis, seemed sluggish and unsteady. He accused Lincoln of promoting mob violence, rebellion and even genocide by confining slavery only to the states where it already existed. Without room for slavery to expand, the natural increase of the slave population would lead to catastrophe, Douglas claimed. "He will hem them in until starvation seizes them, and by starving them to death, he will put slavery in the course of ultimate extinction," Douglas went on. "This is the humane and Christian remedy that he proposes for the great crime of slavery." The pro-Lincoln Quincy Daily Whig reported that Lincoln had given Douglas "one of the severest skinnings he has received."

The next day, the two men walked down to the Mississippi River, boarded a riverboat and steamed south to the port of Alton for their seventh and final debate. Today, Alton's seedy riverfront is dominated by towering concrete grain elevators and a garish riverboat casino, the Argosy, the city's main employer. "If it wasn't for that boat, this city would be in dire straits," says Don Huber, Alton's township supervisor. "This is the Rust Belt here."

On October 15, the weary gladiators—they had been debating for seven weeks now, not to mention speaking at hundreds of crossroads and whistle-stops across the state—gazed out over busy docks piled high with bales and crates; riverboats belching smoke; and the mile-wide Mississippi. Here, Lincoln hoped to administer a coup de grace. "Lincoln was vibrant," says Huber. "Douglas was liquored up and near the point of collapse." (He was known to have a drinking problem.) His voice was weak; his words came out in barks. "Every tone came forth enveloped in an echo—you heard the voice but caught no meaning," reported an eyewitness.

Lincoln hammered away at the basic immorality of slavery. "It should be treated as a wrong, and one of the methods of...treating it as a wrong is to make provision that it shall grow no larger," he declared, his high-pitched voice growing shrill. Nothing else had ever so threatened Americans' liberty and prosperity as slavery, he said. "If this is true, how do you propose to improve the condition of things by enlarging slavery—by spreading it out and making it bigger?" He then went on to the climax of the argument that he had been building since Galesburg: "It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle."


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus