The year is 1858. Abraham Lincoln and his Democratic political opponent Stephen Douglas are engaged in a series of verbal jousting matches that will change the course of U.S. history. These meetings will in future become known as “The Great Debates of 1858” – and the primary subject is that of slavery. But when Douglas calls Lincoln “two-faced,” the future president responds with something that is completely unexpected – and it will do no harm at all to his growing reputation.
The seven debates took place between August 21 and October 13, and all were staged in the state of Illinois. There was an election coming up, and both men were vying for a place in the U.S. Senate, representing Illinois. Douglas was the incumbent, seeking his third term, and had been in office since 1846. Lincoln, meanwhile, was his challenger.
The battle between the two politicians was for control of the Illinois state legislature, the General Assembly. At that time, the body was responsible for electing its senate member – so whoever controlled the Assembly effectively had the power to nominate the state representative. And although the Great Debates were dominated by the topic of slavery, Illinois was in fact a free state – one where there was no enslavement of African-Americans.
The debates took place in seven districts of Illinois. The original idea was to have a debate in each of Illinois’ nine districts. But, because Lincoln and Douglas had separately appeared in two of them already, only seven events were staged in the end. The two districts that lost out on this historic political happening were Chicago and Springfield.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the debates weren’t quite as tightly scheduled as the explosive election head-to-heads that we’re used to seeing on TV today. Little interruption took place, either – except for when the time limit expired. In each debate, one of the two men would first speak, with a limit of one hour. Then the other would have 90 minutes to put forward his views. Finally, the first speaker would get a second bite at the cherry, with a further 30 minutes of speaking time. You might think that this arrangement wasn’t entirely fair on the second speaker, though.
Lincoln and Douglas hence took turns as the first speaker, with Douglas being allowed to start four times due to the fact that he was the incumbent. And since the speeches lasted a total of three hours, one can only imagine that people of that era had longer attention spans than today’s public. But before we get into the details of the debates, let’s first get to know the two opponents a little better.
Stephen Douglas was christened Stephen Arnold Douglass, but he dropped the second “s” in his last name later in life. He was born in 1813 in Brandon, Vermont. His father sadly died when he was still a babe-in-arms, leaving him and his mother stranded. So, she took the young Douglas and moved in with her brother for security.
Not once but twice, Douglas tried his hand as a cabinetmaker’s apprentice. But it seems that he was not cut out for a life of joinery, and he abandoned that path. In 1833, aged 20, he moved to Jacksonville, Illinois intent on pursuing a career in law. Then, the following year, he took his place at the Illinois state bar. But by this time, he was already becoming active in Democratic Party politics.
Douglas’ first taste of political office came in 1834 when he was elected to the position of Illinois State’s Attorney for the First District. And this victory apparently triggered Douglas to lose his interest in life as a lawyer. Instead, a full-time career in politics now beckoned. Then, in 1836, he would take a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives.
And it was in the Illinois House of Representatives that Douglas first came into contact with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had also won a seat in the same 1834 election. At that point, Lincoln was a member of the Whigs, the opposition to Douglas’ Democratic Party. It would be another 20 years, though, before Lincoln’s final political home, the anti-slavery Republican Party, came into being in 1854.
In the meantime, Douglas continued his successful political career in Illinois, including a spell on the Illinois Supreme Court. His elevation to the national political stage came in 1843 when he won a place in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was around this time that he earned his nickname, “Little Giant.” This was based on the combination of his small but heavy stature and his larger-than-life personality.
In 1847, Douglas took his place in the U.S. Senate. His prestige increased as he became a leading figure in the Democratic Party through the following decade. He was especially involved in the arguments about whether new U.S. territories should be slave states or free states. And he played a key role in developing the concept of popular sovereignty.
Popular sovereignty embraced the belief that individual states and territories should decide whether or not slavery would be lawful within their borders. The opposing view was that Congress should decide at the federal level whether U.S. territories would allow slavery. But Douglas’ argument for popular sovereignty was strengthened by a Supreme Court case known as Dred Scott.
Dred Scott v. Sandford was a case that came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857. Scott, an enslaved African-American man, pursued his freedom and that of his family through the legal system – and he lost. In essence, the court decided that the federal government did not have the power to instruct any state to outlaw slavery. However, in a judgement that is breathtakingly racist to modern ears, the Supreme Court went even further than that.
The Court stated that African-Americans effectively couldn’t be free citizens of the U.S. at all. But the case went against the previously held assertion of “once free, always free.” And in his 2008 book, The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln’s Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America, Roy Morris Jr. quoted Douglas’ support for the Supreme Court’s decision.
Douglas claimed that the signatories of the American Constitution had “referred to the white race alone and not the African when they declared men to have been created free and equal.” The Dred Scott case was of course in 1857, just a year before Lincoln’s debates with Douglas. But Lincoln’s long journey to the debates was less straight forward than that of his rival.
Famously born in a log cabin with a single room, Abraham Lincoln came into the world in 1809 on a farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky. As a child, it’s said that he was never enthusiastic about the hard work that farm life required, and he preferred to focus his energies on the written word. And although his formal education as a child was sporadic, he read voraciously. This, however, was seen as a fault in him.
In fact, Lincoln was branded “lazy” for preferring reading, writing and poetry to hard labor. But he was still physically fit and apparently handy with an ax in his teen years. In 1830, he moved to Macon County in Illinois with some of his family. But by the end of 1832, he’d left home and opened a general store with a partner in New Salem, Illinois. Failing to achieve success, Lincoln sold up and decided to try his hand in politics.
Indeed, Lincoln sought election to the Illinois General Assembly. But although he had already shown talent as a speechmaker, he had little formal education or funds. And crucially, he had no influential friends in high places, either. So, despite drawing crowds to his speeches, Lincoln lost. But though he was down, he was certainly not out.
So Lincoln began to take various jobs, and he became the postmaster for New Salem and the surveyor for the county. He also became devoted to studying law by himself by consuming all the legal literature that he could lay his hands on. In 1834 he was ready for a second crack at the Illinois General Assembly. And this time he was successful.
And Lincoln must have been doing something right since his new-found electoral success was repeated another three times. Altogether, he served four terms on the Illinois legislature. And in 1836, like his opponent Douglas, Lincoln took a place at the Illinois bar. That year, he moved roots to Springfield, Illinois, and he went on to practice there as a lawyer.
The future president’s first foray onto the national political stage came in 1846 when he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. An early indication of his attitude to slavery came when he backed a bill to abolish the practice in the District of Columbia. The bill failed, though, as it did not enjoy enough support among the Whigs. It wasn’t the end of his fight, though.
Lincoln only served one term in the House – something that he had promised to do when he was elected. In the ensuing years, he worked as a lawyer, although he maintained his interest in politics. But it was in 1854 that his political activism was rekindled. And it was a measure supported by Stephen Douglas that reignited Lincoln’s passion for the political battle.
Douglas had piloted a Congressional bill which would give the people of Kansas and the Nebraska territories the right to use the concept of popular sovereignty. This would allow the people of the territories to decide whether to allow slavery. Many people in the North opposed this measure, but it nevertheless entered the statute books as the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.
This was absolutely abhorrent to Lincoln. And his emphatic views on the Kansas-Nebraska Act are recorded in the 2008 book The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. In his opinion, the Act had a “declared indifference, but as I must think, a covert real zeal for the spread of slavery.”
“I cannot but hate it,” Lincoln continued. “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.” This was the impetus to put him well and truly back into public life. But it would not be with the Whigs. The controversy of the Kansas-Nebraska Act split the party, effectively destroying it as a political force.
So the Republican Party was born and its central principle was opposition to slavery. Lincoln’s return to politics was marked by his election to the Illinois Senate in 1854. He refused to take the seat that he had won, though. Instead, he stood for election to the U.S. Senate. He was unsuccessful in this bid, however, though he threw his support behind the anti-slavery Democrat, Lyman Trumbull who ultimately won the election.
Then, the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision – supporting slavery and denying citizenship to African-Americans – came in 1857. Douglas stood by that ruling. Like many Americans, especially in the North, Lincoln emphatically did not. And so the stage was set for the 1858 Great Debates between the two men.
The first of the debates was held on August 21 in the Illinois city of Ottawa. At the very heart of the matter was the difference between the two men’s views on slavery. Douglas believed that local electorates should be able to make up their own minds as to whether slavery should be permitted. Lincoln believed that this risked spreading and entrenching slavery in America.
Clearly, these encounters between Lincoln and Douglas were dealing with a subject that went to the very heart of the future of the U.S. – and what kind of nation it was going to be in the years to come. But that did not mean that the meetings weren’t lightened by humor at times. Lincoln, in particular, was a man with a reputation for outstanding wit and an ability to play with words.
On one occasion, Douglas accused his opponent of being two-faced. Lincoln, however, had a ready riposte for this slur. According to an article by Robert Mankoff in The New Yorker, published in 2012, Lincoln replied to Douglas’ allegation with some of the humor that he was well known for deploying in his political career.
“Honestly, if I were two-faced,” Lincoln retorted, “would I be showing you this one?” And this self-deprecating line still brings smiles some 160 years later. The point of the joke is of course that Lincoln’s many qualities did not include classic good looks. Indeed, one of Lincoln’s New Salem neighbors was able to attest to that fact.
In his 2008 book, The Physical Lincoln Sourcebook, John G. Sotos quotes the words of this individual, known only as Camron. His description of Lincoln is blunt, to say the least. “Thin as a beanpole and ugly as a scarecrow,” he reportedly said. We can take it that Lincoln was well aware of his physical appearance. And his willingness to make a joke of his own shortcomings can only add to the man’s charm.
In fact, in his article, Mankoff makes the somewhat startling claim that Lincoln was the first president – being elected in 1860 – to have any sense of humor at all. The author does qualify this point, though, by saying that the concept of “a sense of humor” didn’t receive wide currency until around this time.
And then there was Lincoln’s smile. In a 2013 Irish Times article, the words of one Republican, Carl Schurz, are quoted. Schurz remembered seeing the great man in the flesh for the first time in 1858. He described Lincoln’s “homely, deeply furrowed, swarthy, haggard face, topped with a somewhat battered stovepipe hat.”
But Schurz also recalled Lincoln’s “deep-set, melancholy eyes, from time to time illuminated with a merry twinkle” and his “kind smile.” And Lincoln’s personality apparently shone through. “I felt as if I had actually known him all my life,” Schurz remembered. That smile was clearly an important part of Lincoln’s personal repertoire – and perhaps a key to his political success.
As Mankoff points out, if you look at portraits of politicians in those early days of photography, almost without exception, they seem determined not to smile. And that’s a stark contrast to the toothy grins brandished by politicians in their official portraits today. But Lincoln, it seems, was ahead of his time.
Yes, there are certainly photographs of Lincoln that seem to show a smile playing on his lips. And it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to see those smiles as sure evidence that Lincoln did have a sense of humor. It was a quality that he had put to good use during the course of his debates with Douglas, after all.
The Great Debates of 1858 would prove to be a portent of America’s future. Although Douglas ultimately won the contest, Lincoln won the popular vote. And Douglas, the Democrat, later faced Lincoln, the Republican, in the presidential race of 1860 – and, as we know, Lincoln won. With the fault lines in American society lying fully exposed, the Civil War swiftly followed in 1861. Ultimately, Lincoln’s views on slavery prevailed – and the practice was abolished in 1865.
But on April 14, 1865, just as the Civil War was reaching its conclusion, Lincoln was assassinated. It seemed a bitter end for the man who had worked so hard to obtain freedom for all Americans. As for Douglas, typhoid killed him in June 1861 just as the Civil War was getting underway. But after his election defeat, he had actually declared his support for the Union and for his old political adversary, who was now President Lincoln.