Douglas, Stephen Arnold: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

In the 1858 Illinois campaign the “Little Giant,” as his admirers called him, was pitted against Abraham Lincoln. The contest was made memorable by the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which first gained Lincoln a national reputation. Of the seven debates, the second, held at Freeport on Aug. 27, 1858, had the most important consequences. There Lincoln shrewdly put to Douglas a question exposing the inconsistency between Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott Case—“Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way … exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State constitution?” Had Douglas answered no, in line with the Dred Scott decision, he would have offended many of his constituents and doubtless lost his seat in the Senate. As it was, he replied that people of a territory could exclude slavery, since that institution could not exist for a day without local police regulations and these could be legislated only with their approval.

The Republicans won a popular majority in the ensuing election, but the Democrats controlled the legislature, and Douglas was returned to the Senate. However, his Freeport doctrine, as his answer to Lincoln's question was styled, had made him anathema to Southern Democrats. Since they controlled the Senate, he was relieved of the chairmanship of the Committee on Territories.

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