Editor's Note: The Lincoln–Douglas debates took place in 1858. They were a series of seven talks during the Illinois Senate election. Abraham Lincoln was running for the Senate as a Republican. He was running against the current senator, Stephen Douglas, a Democrat.
Although Illinois was a free state, the main thing the two men discussed was slavery in the United States. Lincoln believed slavery was wrong. Still, he was not yet an abolitionist, or someone who wanted to free all slaves so they could be equal members of society. During the debates, he spoke of trying to make sure slavery did not spread to territories that had not become states yet.
Lincoln lost this race, but the debates made him well-known and helped him develop his views on slavery. He faced these same topics again when he became president in 1860. In 1863, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed 3 million slaves.
Lincoln Leads Off With Answers
The debate in Freeport, Illinois, took place on August 27, 1858. It was attended by 20,000 people. Crowded trains arrived from all over the state.
Douglas arrived the night before and was welcomed by a procession of 75 torches. Lincoln arrived on the Illinois Central train. He was saluted by the cannon and received by thousands of Republicans.
At 2 p.m., the debate began. Lincoln led off by replying to the questions asked by Douglas at a previous debate in Ottawa, Illinois.
Question 1: I desire to know whether Lincoln, today, stands as he did in 1854, in favor of an unconditional ban of the fugitive slave law. (This law states that slaves who escape from one state to another can be captured and returned.)
Answer: I do not now, nor ever did, stand in favor of an unconditional ban of the fugitive slave law.
Question 2: I desire him to answer whether he stands pledged today, as he did in 1854, against the admission of any more slave states into the Union, even if the people want them.
Answer: I do not now, nor ever did, stand pledged against the admission of any more slave states into the Union.
Question 3: I want to know whether he stands pledged against the admission of a new state into the Union with such a constitution as the people of that state may see fit to make.
Answer: I do not stand pledged against the admission of a new state into the Union, with such a constitution as the people of that state may see fit to make.
Question 4: I want to know whether he stands, today, pledged to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.
Answer: I do not stand, today, pledged to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.
Question 5: I desire him to answer whether he stands pledged to ban the slave trade between the different states.
Answer: I do not stand pledged to ban the slave trade between the different states.
Question 6: I desire to know whether he stands pledged to prohibit slavery in all the territories of the United States, south as well as north of the Missouri Compromise line.
Answer: I believe in the right and duty of Congress to prohibit slavery in all the United States territories.
Question 7: I desire him to answer whether he is opposed to gaining any new territory unless slavery is first prohibited therein.
Answer: I am not generally opposed to honest gaining of territory; and, in any given case, I may or may not oppose such action. It depends if I think such action would or would not disturb the slavery question among our eyes. ... Now, my friends, it will be perceived upon an examination of these questions and answers, that so far, I have only answered that I am not committed to this, that or the other. Douglas has not framed his questions to ask me anything more than this, and I have answered in strict accordance with them.
Lincoln Offers Details On Views
Lincoln then proceeded to give his views upon the several points presented. He would keep slavery out of the territories, and thus never be called to vote upon the reception of a slave state; but, if after a territory had been kept free, it should present a pro-slavery constitution (a moral impossibility), he would vote for its admission.
He would be in favor of exercising the power to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and in the language of Henry Clay, "Sweep from the capital that foul blot upon our nation."
After this, he asked Douglas the following questions:
1. If the people of Kansas (a free state) shall adopt a state constitution and ask admission into the Union under it, will you vote to admit them?
2. Can the people of a United States territory exclude, or ban, slavery, previous to the formation of a state constitution?
3. If the Supreme Court of the United States shall decide that the states cannot exclude slavery, are you in favor of accepting such decision as a rule of political action?
4. Are you in favor of acquiring additional territory no matter how it may affect the nation on the slavery question?
1. He would admit Kansas with her present population.
2. People of any territory could ban slavery before becoming a state.
3. He would resist the decision of the Supreme Court should it decide that a state cannot ban slavery.
4. He was in favor of acquiring territory without regard to slavery.
Douglas Inconsistent On Response
In his answer to the third question, Douglas contradicted what he said in Chicago. On July 9, he had declared that he would respect the decision of the Supreme Court in regards to slavery.
Lincoln pointed out that Douglas was inconsistent. Lincoln's supporters continued meeting while Douglas' supporters were not heard from for the rest of the day.