15. THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATE: PROLOGUE TO DESTINY
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was the Republican, and
Stephen A. Douglas the Democratic, candidate for United States Senator
from Illinois. Douglas was serving as Senator at the time and was
seeking reelection. Shortly after the campaign started, Lincoln, in a
letter written at Chicago, July 24, challenged Douglas to a joint debate
on the issues before the people. Douglas accepted and suggested that
there be a joint meeting at one prominent point in each congressional
district in the State, excepting the Second and Sixth, where each had
already spoken. Douglas named seven places.
The great issue was over slavery and its
constitutional and legal place in the Nation. The Dred Scott Decision,
the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, the extension of slavery into the Territories,
were the points on which the great debate dwelt. Douglas was considered
the leader of the Democratic Party. His great talent and power in debate
were acknowledged throughout the land. Compared with him, Lincoln was
unknown beyond the borders of his own State. The political and forensic
contest waged by these two men in Illinois that year caught the
attention of the entire Nation. After its close the name of Lincoln, for
the first time, was not altogether unfamiliar in the country at large.
Douglas traveled over the State during the debate in a special train
equipped with a brass cannon. Lincoln traveled as an ordinary passenger
in a common coach, and there were times when he could not even find a
Close reasoning, iron logic, clear exposition, and
honesty marked Lincoln's speeches. They may still be cited as
masterpieces of political discussion. Yet Douglas won the contest, as he
was returned to the Senate by a close vote of the State
In the first selection given below an old friend
of Lincoln's tells about riding with him on the way to the first debate
at Ottawa. In the second, Horace White, who reported the debates for
the Chicago Tribune, relates some of his impressions of the
I went from Chicago via the morning train, which
reached Ottawa at noon. Lincoln got on board at Morris. The humblest
commercial traveler did not travel so unostentatiously; he was entirely
alone, and carried his little baggage in his hand. He did not have a
director's car, with a great retinue of flunkeys and parasites and a
platform car with a cannon on it, as his distinguished competitor did.
He sat with me throughout the journey; and I am thus enabled to know for
myself that this remarkable man exhibited not the slightest trace of
excitement or nervousness at the threshold of one of the fiercest
political contests in this or in any other country. We talked about
matters other than the impending debate.
I merely alluded to that as we approached the goal
for the contest to which he calmly and indifferently replied, that he
was fully prepared.
WHITNEY, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln.
The first joint debate in pursuance of the agreement
was at Ottawa, August 21. It took place in the open air, as did all the
other debates. The State was now pretty well stirred up. Expectation was
on tiptoe. . . . I had early taken a position on elevated ground
overlooking the town and surrounding country. Some hours before the time
fixed for the speaking, clouds of dust began to rise on the horizon
along the roads leading to the place, from all points of the compass,
and these clouds became more frequent and more dense as the hours rolled
There were large wagons with four-horse teams for the
accommodation of political clubs, heavily loaded and bearing canvas
signs indicating their habitation and their political belonging. Long
before the speakers and reporters ascended the platform, the public
square where the meeting took place, and the avenues leading thereto,
were densely packed with human beings, who had also swarmed upon the
platform itself and its timber supports, and had filled the windows of
all houses within earshot. . . . At all the other joint debates, except
those of Jonesboro and Alton, which were in the part of Illinois called
"Egypt," similar crowds and scenes were witnessed, the largest
assemblage of all, according to my memoranda, being at Galesburg.
Douglas ended in a whirlwind of applause [the opening
debate at Ottawa] and Lincoln began to speak in a slow and rather
awkward way. He had a thin tenor, or rather falsetto, voice, almost as
high pitched as a boatswain's whistle. It could be heard farther and it
had better wearing qualities than Douglas' rich baritone, but it was not
so impressive to the listeners. Moreover, his words did not flow in a
rushing, unbroken stream like Douglas'. He sometimes stopped for repairs
before finishing a sentence, especially at the beginning of a speech.
After getting fairly started, and lubricated, as it were, he went on
without any noticeable hesitation, but he never had the ease and grace
and finish of his adversary. . . . Lincoln required time to gather
himself . . ., but he never failed to find his footing and to maintain
it firmly when he had found it. What he lacked in mental agility and
alertness he made up in moral superiority and blazing earnestness that
came from his heart and went straight to those of his hearers.
The last debate took place at Alton, October 15. At
this meeting Douglas' voice was scarcely audible. It was worn out by
incessant speaking, not at the seven joint debates only, but at nearly a
hundred separate meetings. At Alton he was so hoarse that he could not
be distinctly heard more than twenty feet from the platform. Yet he
maintained the same resolute bearing, the same look of calm
self-confidence that he had shown at the beginning. Lincoln's voice was
not in the least impaired although he had made as many speeches
additional to the joint debates as Douglas had.
HORACE WHITE, The Lincoln and Douglas Debates.