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Analysis: Looking for Lincoln in the debates

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 9, 2009 - The catalyst that propelled Abraham Lincoln to national attention was a series of debates held with Stephen Douglas as part of their 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate. While Lincoln talked about the “ultimate extinction” of slavery, he did not think the federal government could decree the end of slavery in the South, and he did not support social equality. Robert Tabscott, head of the Elijah Lovejoy Society , writes about the debates, which culminated in Alton.

When Illinois entered the Federal Union in 1818, its Constitution defined it is a free commonwealth. But no state in the north was more divided over the issue of slavery.

The reality of that issue hovered over the great debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1858.

The Contest Begins

On a stiflingly hot evening, June 6, 1858, Abraham Lincoln, a former one-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, stepped onto the raised platform at Springfield, Ill., to accept the Republican Party's nomination to run for the U.S. Senate against the most famous Democrat in America: the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas.

At six feet, four inches, Lincoln towered over the audience. The nation was at a historic crossroads, and he had worked on this speech for weeks. He delivered his poetic prose with unmatched rhetorical power. His body angular, his hands large and awkward, his voice strong but high pitched, Lincoln quickly gained his audience's attention.

"Slavery agitation" has convulsed American politics and exploded in guerrilla war in Kansas. In my opinion, ventured Lincoln, "it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed." Then, in imagery familiar to his Bible-reading listeners, he gave the crisis its unforgettable metaphor.

"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 become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new - North as well as South.

As he concluded, Lincoln contended that a conspiracy led by the Democratic Party's "chief bosses" sought to make slavery a national institution. He charged Douglas with not caring "whether slavery be voted down or voted up." For Lincoln, this was a choice history would no longer allow Americans to avoid. And the southern slaveholders would never forget Lincoln's use of the phrase, "ultimate extinction."

The Debates

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were three-hour marathons of direct confrontation, political analysis and theater, with the candidates alternately speaking in long addresses and rebuttals. Thousands of people attended these outdoor events, arriving by foot, by wagon, on trains, and accompanied by brass bands.

Lincoln and Douglas squared off over the nuances of the great issue dividing the country: the westward expansion of slavery, the challenge of abolitionism, and the role of federal authority over slaves as "property" and whether the Declaration of Independence had signaled that all men were created equal.

Again and again, Douglas accused his opponent of, being an "abolitionist sympathizer" and favoring racial equality. Lincoln said that he opposed social equality between whites and blacks but he embraced the natural-rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence and condemned slavery as an "evil" that had to be constrained. Lincoln insisted on stopping slavery's expansion while maintaining that the federal government could not legally eliminate it in the South. He accused Douglas of dangerous neutrality, evil indifference, about slavery's future.

Lincoln and Douglas debated the nature of American democracy. Both appealed to fear and to hope. Lincoln cast the election as a moral choice between free-labor, free-soil doctrine and a republic ultimately dominated by an oligarchy of slaveholders determined to destroy the liberties of ordinary citizens.

In addition to the eloquence of the "House Divided" speech, Lincoln presented a homespun, clear statement of the moral bankruptcy of slavery, which observed that no proslavery advocate ever volunteers for bondage. Lincoln's views on race itself and on social or political equality have a complex history. Lincoln was vehemently anti-slavery without being the radical abolitionist Douglas depicted.

And there was more to their encounter than just the matter of slavery and the Congress. Douglas had something to prove and an old animosity to deal with: He had been spurned in his courtship of Mary Todd, the belle of Springfield, who chose, instead, Abraham Lincoln. Old jealousies do not vanish easily. Both men had to be aware of that subtext.

While Douglas was more than polished orator and fashionable dandy, Lincoln was a daunting figure, a full foot taller than the little giant. The incumbent senator was a powerful presence and a skillful debater. Lincoln was a resonate blend of knowledge, quick wit, homespun humor and patriotic passion.

Echo of Lovejoy

So they came to Alton, the last stop on the exhausting campaign trail.

Alton was arguably the most hostile environment Lincoln had to face, for old racial hatred still simmered among residents who had ties and strong sympathies with the South by passion and place of birth. Moreover Alton was the place where Elijah Lovejoy, the abolitionist editor, had been murdered in 1837 by a mob. The blood of a martyr still remained. And given that Elijah's brother Owen Lovejoy was a close friend of Lincoln's, frequently speaking for him during this campaign, there can be no doubt that Lincoln knew well the story of Lovejoy's death.

Elijah Lovejoy was a crusading, editor and clergyman in St. Louis, who was virtually driven out of town because of his anti-slavery editorials. He moved his press across the Mississippi to Alton, where he thought he would find a more favorable climate. And he did find strong support - but even stronger opposition. In Alton, Lovejoy's own position moved from emancipation to abolition and his voice against slavery grew harsher. He died defending a newly delivered press.

As had been the case with a younger Elijah Lovejoy, Lincoln's racial views were a subject of change and growth, and they have to be viewed in the turbulent context of the Civil War era. The Illinois lawyer who grew up surrounded by raw prejudice was more important for what he "claimed for [blacks] not what he did for them." It is a contested legacy. Generation after generation we fight over just what Lincoln says to us. In his lifetime he had not yet arrived at racial equality but instead saw that blacks once freed possessed the sacred right to the "fruit of their labor."

There was little new in the Alton debate. The "real issue" Lincoln contended, the issue that would continue long after the "tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent is the eternal struggle between ... right and wrong;" the common right of humanity set against "the divine right of kings..."

"It is the same spirit that says 'you work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter what shape it comes in ... whether by one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle."

With that it was over, the great debates came to an end.

While Douglas won the Senate seat, Abraham Lincoln gained the admiration and applause of throngs of men in the North. And the stage was soon set for one of the greatest elections in the history of the United States, which would pit the two men from Springfield against each other (and John Breckinridge and John Bell) in 1860.

The future of America was in the balance and Abe Lincoln, who came out of the wilderness, was chosen to face it. Now, another man from Illinois comes to Washington during a difficult time - a time of economic crisis. In a sense, the past and the future meet and the nation leans in to see how it will play itself out.