August 21, 1858 – The First Lincoln-Douglas Debate

On this day in history, the first debate between senatorial contenders Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place in Ottawa, Illinois. They each gave incredibly long speeches, allowing rebuttals as well as questions from the audience, and yet between 10,000 and 12,000 people stood in attendance throughout the whole afternoon. A word search reveals 57 occurrences of laughter; no doubt this was essential to the process!

lincolndouglas

In this debate, Lincoln strongly expressed his loathing of slavery:

I think, and shall try to show, that it is wrong; wrong in its direct effect, letting slavery into Kansas and Nebraska – and wrong in its prospective principle, allowing it to spread to every other part of the wide world, where men can be found inclined to take it.

This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites – causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty-criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”

Lincolns arguments are subtle and astute, as when he asserts that the ostensibly neutrality of the concept of “popular sovereignty” is deceptive:

What is Popular Sovereignty? Is it the right of the people to have Slavery or not have it, as they see fit, in the territories? I will state – and I have an able man to watch me – my understanding is that Popular Sovereignty, as now applied to the question of slavery, does allow the people of a Territory to have slavery if they want to, but does not allow them not to have it if they do not want it.”

You can read the full text of the remarks of both Lincoln and Douglas here.

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