Abolitionists and Politics: Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Lesson Content

Inquire: What was the Result of the Election of 1856?


The uneasy peace of the Compromise of 1850 had been shattered by violence in Kansas — and on the floor of the Senate — as pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists began resorting to violence. What little hope there was of a resolution was heavily damaged by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott Case, which seemed to invalidate any anti-slavery laws passed in the North. Onto this stage returned a man who had resigned from public office in 1849 after serving eight years in Congress, Abraham Lincoln. Convinced there could be no “split resolution” and that the United States needed to choose one path, he entered the race for Illinois United States senator in 1858, challenging the long-time Illinois senator, Stephen A. Douglas, to a series of debates.

Leading up to the Election of 1860 were significant events: failure of the Compromise, increasing violence, the potentially overwhelming impact of the Dred Scott decision, and Lincoln’s meteoric rise to national prominence, fueled by his stirring rhetoric in the debates, which was published nationwide.


Big Question

How did the Dred Scott decision and the Lincoln-Douglas debates impact the coming of the Civil War?

Watch: 1856: A Democratic Victory and a Republican Beginning

Read: A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand


In 1858, as the country moved ever closer to disunion, two politicians from Illinois attracted the attention of a nation. From August 21 until October 15, Stephen Douglas battled Abraham Lincoln in face to face debates around the state. The prize they sought was a seat in the Senate. Lincoln challenged Douglas to a war of ideas. Douglas took the challenge. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were to be held at seven locations throughout Illinois. The fight was on, and the nation was watching.

Spectators came from all over Illinois and nearby states by train, canal-boat, wagon, buggy, and on horseback. They briefly swelled the populations of the towns that hosted the debates. The audiences participated by shouting questions, cheering the participants as if they were prizefighters, applauding, and laughing. The debates attracted tens of thousands of voters and newspaper reporters from across the nation. Newspapers throughout the United States published each of their speeches. Whereas Douglas already enjoyed national recognition, Lincoln had been largely unknown before the debates. These appearances provided an opportunity for him to raise his profile with both Northerners and Southerners.

An Abolitionist Effort

Douglas portrayed the Republican Party as an abolitionist effort — one that aimed to bring about miscegenation, or race-mixing through sexual relations or marriage. The “black Republicans,” Douglas declared, posed a dangerous threat to the Constitution. Indeed, because Lincoln declared that the nation could not survive if the slave state/free state division continued, Douglas claimed that the Republicans aimed to destroy what the founders had created.

During the debates, Douglas still advocated popular sovereignty, which maintained the right of the citizens of a territory to permit or prohibit slavery. It was, he said, a sacred right of self-government. For Lincoln, the Senate run, and the debates themselves, marked a return to public life after an eight-year absence. Feeling strongly about the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision, Lincoln demanded that Douglas explain whether he believed that the Dred Scott case trumped the right of a majority to prevent the expansion of slavery under the principle of popular sovereignty.

DecorativeDouglas responded to Lincoln during the second debate at Freeport, Illinois. In what became known as the Freeport Doctrine, Douglas adamantly upheld popular sovereignty declaring: “It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please.” The Freeport Doctrine would be taken as betrayal to many Southern Democrats and would come back to haunt Douglas in his bid to become president in the Election of 1860.

The doctrine did help Douglas in Illinois, however, where most voters opposed the further expansion of slavery. The Illinois legislature selected Douglas over Lincoln for the Senate, but the debates succeeded in launching Lincoln into the national spotlight. Lincoln had argued that slavery was morally wrong, even as he accepted the racism inherent in slavery. He warned that Douglas and the Democrats would nationalize slavery through the policy of popular sovereignty. Though Douglas had survived the election challenge from Lincoln, his Freeport Doctrine undermined the Democratic Party as a national force.

For his part, Lincoln said:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half Slave and half Free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction: or its advocates will push it forward till it shall became alike lawful in all the States — old as well as new, North as well as South.

Douglas refuted this by noting that the founders “left each state perfectly free to do as it pleased on the subject.”

DecorativeLincoln interpreted the Dred Scott decision and the Kansas-Nebraska Act as efforts to nationalize slavery, that is, to make it legal everywhere from New England to the Midwest and beyond. He also felt that blacks were entitled to the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, which include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Douglas argued that the founders intended no such inclusion for blacks.

Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Stephen Douglas won a popular election that fall. Under rules governing Senate elections, voters cast their ballots for local legislators, who then chose a senator.

The Democrats won a majority of district contests and returned Douglas to Washington. But, the nation saw a rising star as Lincoln launched into the national spotlight. The entire drama that unfolded in Illinois would be played out on the national stage only two years later with the highest of all possible stakes.

Reflect: Slow or Fast?


From what you know of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, both what was said by each debater and the short and long term outcomes of their contest, who did you think was the big winner?

Expand: Dred Scott - The Decision Heard Around the World

Dred Scott

Dred Scott

In 1857, several months after President Buchanan took the oath of office, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Dred Scott, born a slave in Virginia in 1795, had been one of the thousands forced to relocate as a result of the massive internal slave trade. He was taken to Missouri, where slavery had been adopted as part of the Missouri Compromise. In 1820, Scott’s owner took him first to Illinois and then to the Wisconsin territory. However, both of those regions were part of the Northwest Territory, where the 1787 Northwest Ordinance had prohibited slavery. When Scott returned to Missouri, he attempted to buy his freedom. After his owner refused, he sought relief in the state courts, arguing that by virtue of having lived in areas where slavery was banned, he should be free.

In a complicated set of legal decisions, a jury found that Scott, along with his wife and two children, were free. However, on appeal from Scott’s owner, the state Superior Court reversed the decision, and the Scotts remained slaves. Scott then became the property of John Sanford (his name was misspelled as “Sandford” in later court documents) who lived in New York. He continued his legal battle, and because the issue involved Missouri and New York, the case fell under the jurisdiction of the federal court. In 1854, Scott lost in federal court and appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

In 1857, the Supreme Court — led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, a former slaveholder who had freed his slaves — handed down its decision. On the question of whether Scott was free, the Supreme Court decided he remained a slave. The court then went beyond the specific issue of Scott’s freedom to make a sweeping and momentous judgment about the status of blacks, both free and slave. Per the court, blacks could never be citizens of the United States. Further, the court ruled that Congress had no authority to stop or limit the spread of slavery into American territories. This proslavery ruling explicitly made the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. Implicitly, it made Douglas’s popular sovereignty unconstitutional.

The Dred Scott decision infuriated Republicans by rendering their goal — to prevent slavery’s spread into the territories — unconstitutional. To Republicans, the decision offered further proof of the reach of the South’s slave power, which now apparently extended even to the Supreme Court. The decision also complicated life for Northern Democrats, especially Stephen Douglas, who could no longer sell popular sovereignty as a symbolic concession to Southerners from Northern voters. Few Northerners favored slavery’s expansion westward.

[learn_more] Here are the excerpts from the decision written by Chief Justice Taney in Dred Scott v. Sandford The excerpt below is from Taney’s decision. “A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a “citizen” within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States…” The only two clauses in the Constitution which point to this race treat them as persons whom it was morally lawfully to deal in as articles of property and to hold as slaves… Every citizen has a right to take with him into the Territory any article of property which the Constitution of the United States recognises as property… The Constitution of the United States recognises slaves as property, and pledges the Federal Government to protect it. And Congress cannot exercise any more authority over property of that description than it may constitutionally exercise over property of any other kind… Prohibiting a citizen of the United States from taking with him his slaves when he removes to the Territory… is an exercise of authority over private property which is not warranted by the Constitution, and the removal of the plaintiff [Dred Scott] by his owner to that Territory gave him no title to freedom. [/learn_more]

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Lesson Resources

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Additional Resources and Readings

The Election of 1860 & the Road to Disunion: Crash Course US History #18

A Crash Course video covering the events leading to the Election of 1860

Lincoln and Douglas

A video about the relationship between President Lincoln and Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, with original photographs and actor portrayals

The Dred Scott Case

A video explaining the Dred Scott Case

Lincoln-Douglas Debates: Freeport Doctrine clip

A video clip from C-Span’s Lincoln Douglas Debates series featuring a re-enactment of Douglas answering Lincoln’s Freeport question

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • American Party
    a formerly secretive organization, nicknamed the “Know-Nothing Party” because its members denied knowing anything about it, which had evolved into a national force committed to halting further immigration
  • debates
    public discussions between political candidates wherein they state their respective positions and opposing arguments
  • Freeport Doctrine
    a doctrine that emerged during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in which Douglas reaffirmed his commitment to popular sovereignty, including the right to halt the spread of slavery
  • Lincoln-Douglas debates
    a series of seven debates held throughout Illinois in 1858 between the challengers for the Illinois senate seat, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas
  • miscegenation
    race mixing through sexual relations or marriage

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates”: U.S. History Online Textbook, DOA. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Republican Party – The Election of 1856: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The Dred Scott Decision and Sectional Strife – Lincoln-Douglas Debates: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeDred ScottLouis SchultzeOpenStaxCC 4.0 
DecorativeThe Undecided Political Prize Fight 1860Unknown Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeLincoln debating DouglasCool10191Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
DecorativeLincoln Douglas DebatesMathew B. BradyPublic Domain Clip Art Photos and ImagesPublic Domain
Decorative Lincoln Douglas Debates 1958 issue-4cU.S. Government, Post Office DepartmentWikimedia Commons Public Domain