OTD in History… August 21, 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas begin the first of seven debates

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history, August 21, 1858, Democrat and Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas and his opponent for the Illinois Senate seat lawyer and former Congressman Abraham Lincoln of the new Republican Party began the first of their seven debates during the campaign season ahead of the 1858 midterm elections to large audiences and the partisan press. According to historian Allen C. Guelzo the author of Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, “The combination of shorthand, the telegraph and the railroad changed everything. It was unprecedented. Lincoln and Douglas knew they were speaking to the whole nation. It was like JFK in 1960 coming to grips with the presence of the vast new television audience.”

During the three-hour debates, Lincoln and Douglas debated about the spread of slavery to the new territories. Lincoln opposed the “spread of slavery,” while Douglas believed in states’ rights, allowing the states to decide on the issue. Douglas’s philosophy was not working in Kansas and Nebraska where there Bleeding Kansas riots between slaveholders and free-soilers. Guelzo analyzes “For Lincoln, slavery is the problem. 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.”

The spread of slavery was the main issue of the 1858 campaign. Lincoln believed that Douglas’ 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing the territories to decide whether they would be slave or free and the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision protecting Southern slave owners bringing their slaves in free states, as pushing that slavery would be accepted throughout the nation. Additionally, the proslavery Lecompton Constitution in Kansas had brought the slavery issue to the forefront. Lincoln was “warning that slavery might become lawful everywhere,” because of Douglas’s position on states’ rights gave pro-slavery advocates validation. While Douglas accused Lincoln that he “believes that the Almighty made the Negro equal to the white man,” which was a dangerous accusation to make at that point. Lincoln and Douglas spent the summer in the back and forth, Lincoln wanted, however, to confront Douglas directly in a debate to which Douglas agreed. (McPherson, 182–183)

The Great Debates of 1858 argued about slavery but Lincoln and Douglas were also campaigning for their party to win control of the state legislature. The state legislature chose the senators and the public only voted for the legislatures. The debates lasted three hours each and had a distinct format, the first candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the second for 90 minutes, while the first was given a 30-minute “rejoinder.” Since Douglas was the incumbent, he started four of the seven dates. The Democrat and pro-Douglas press transcribed Douglas’ speeches and corrected them for publication, while they published Lincoln’s in the rough, while the Republican and pro-Lincoln press did the opposite. The debates were held on the following seven dates and locations:

First Debate Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858

Second Debate Freeport, Illinois, August 27, 1858

Third Debate Jonesboro, Illinois, September 15, 1858

Fourth Debate Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858

Fifth Debate Galesburg, Illinois, October 7, 1858

Sixth Debate Quincy, Illinois, October 13, 1858

Seventh Debate Alton, Illinois, October 15, 1858

Historian James McPherson explains the importance and significance of the debates in his seminal book, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. McPherson states, “These debates are deservedly the most famous in American history. They matched two powerful logicians and hard-hitting speakers, one of them nationally eminent and the other little known outside his region. To the seven prairie towns came thousands of farmers, workers, clerks, lawyers, and people from all walks of life to sit or stand outdoors for hours in sunshine or rain, heat or cold, dust or mud. The crowds participated in the debates by shouted questions, pointed comments, cheers, and groans. The stakes were higher than a senatorial election, higher even than the looming presidential contest of 1860, for the theme of the debates was nothing less than the future of slavery and the Union. Tariffs, banks, internal improvements, corruption, and other staples of American politics received not a word in these debates — the sole topic was slavery.” (McPherson, 182)

Lincoln won the debates but failed to win the election. Lincoln won a plurality of popular votes but Douglas’s Democrats won more seats in the State Legislature elevating to the Senate seat. In the end, the Democratic majority in the state legislature worked in Douglas’s favor garnering him 54 to 46 votes. Lincoln took all his speeches from the debates and published them in a book. The debates helped Lincoln gained national prominence and the campaign helped launch him on the national stage. Lincoln would go on to face Douglas again in the 1860 presidential election, this time with the state of the Union on the line with the country on the brink of Civil War. Lincoln won the presidency but immediately after the election, seven southern states would keep their promise and secede from the Union over Lincoln’s election plunging the country into Civil War a little over a month after Lincoln took office.


Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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