Learning about America through primary sources: Lincoln-Douglas debates

Written by Derek Monson

October 21, 2021

This is part 8 in Sutherland’s new series highlighting primary sources from American history in the hopes of enriching civics education. To help teachers and students identify where to start with primary sources, this series looks at a limited selection that we believe are indispensable to understanding our nation’s government, history, and current circumstances. During this time, when much is being said about America’s history, our hope is that this series can encourage the use of primary sources to help students find context and understanding.

What is this primary source?

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a series of seven debates in the 1858 race for U.S. senator from Illinois between incumbent Sen. Stephen Douglas and challenger Abraham Lincoln. The debates took place in seven different locations across Illinois over a span of about two months. With a format much different than modern debates – the opening candidate spoke for 60 minutes, with a response from the other candidate of 90 minutes and closing with a 30-minute rebuttal by the first candidate – the debates drew large crowds of residents from across the state and news reporters from across the nation.

Due to the political concerns of the time, the debates focused largely on the enslavement of Black Americans – including its justification or lack thereof, and the extent of its expansion. That focus inevitably led the candidates to debate critical civic issues, such as the meaning and application of the Declaration of Independence. Although Lincoln lost the 1858 Senate election, his performance in the debates is credited with launching him to national political prominence. Lincoln ran for president of the United States in 1860, again facing (and this time defeating) Stephen Douglas.

Where did it come from in our history? 

Significant political division and upheaval occurred throughout the 1800s due to disagreement about the institution of slavery in the United States. Federal enactment in 1854 of the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed slavery to expand into northern federal territories and states under the concept of popular sovereignty. Combined with the 1857 Supreme Court ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the divisive controversy led to the dissolution of one of the two national political parties of the time: the Whig Party. This made space for the rise in the mid-1850s of the Republican Party, of which Lincoln was a member.

As senator, Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska act and championed popular sovereignty when it came to slavery. This became a significant issue in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Douglas eventually took a position – in response to Lincoln’s criticism – that split the national Democratic Party into northern and southern factions when Douglas ran for president as a Democrat in 1860. The split helped Lincoln get elected, and the Civil War began with the attack on Fort Sumter a little over a month after his 1861 inauguration.

Why are the Lincoln-Douglas debates an important element of civics and history education?

The Lincoln-Douglas debates have much insight to offer modern times. One of its major disagreements – the meaning and intent of the Declaration of Independence – continues to this day. Critical thinkers on race adopt the argument of Douglas and the Supreme Court majority in the Dred Scott decision that the Declaration was not intended to apply to Black Americans – although the conclusion they draw from that thinking is dramatically different than the conclusion of Douglas. Efforts such as 1776 Unites, on the other hand, take the Lincoln argument that the words of the Declaration are meant to apply to all Americans regardless of race.

Additionally, the Lincoln-Douglas debates reveal the racism inherent in the thinking of both sides of the 19th-century debate over slavery (e.g., believing that Black Americans should have political, but not social, equality with white Americans). Even in times of relative progress on racial issues in the history of the U.S., significant barriers to equality have remained, often outlasting the progress.

In other words, much of what we see in politics and society today – division over racial issues, polarization based on opinions about those issues, etc. – has happened before in America. Through historical records like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, we can learn from these periods of history and try to follow the model of their progress while avoiding their missteps. But that is only possible if we invest the time and effort into learning from them as a part of civics and history education.

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