The Moral Underpinning of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, which centered on the future of slavery in America, began this week (Aug. 21) in 1858.  In debating Stephen Douglas, the incumbent U.S. senator from Illinois, Abe Lincoln hoped to unseat him in the upcoming Illinois senatorial election, but Lincoln also had a larger purpose in debating Douglas.  He wanted to remind the citizens of Illinois, and the country (the debates received national press coverage), that America was losing its moral bearings.

It was this latter fear that prompted Lincoln to return to politics; in the mid-1850s he had been practicing law. What specifically drew Lincoln back to the political arena was passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and its promotion of the “popular sovereignty” concept as a way for people in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide, upon entering the Union, whether they would be slave states or free states.

In fact, Douglas was the original champion of popular sovereignty, which he saw as a practical compromise between abolitionists who wanted slavery banned in all future states, and pro-slavery interests, which wanted slavery allowed in all future states.  With popular sovereignty the residents in Kansas and Nebraska — and the people in any future territories seeking to become states — would decide the issue for themselves through the democratic process.

But to Lincoln popular sovereignty violated the American creed. Because the Declaration of Independence said that all men are created equal, no man can govern another man without that man’s consent.  That was the very essence of “self-government,” meaning that self-government and slavery, and by extension popular sovereignty when it chose to allow slavery, were incompatible.

Further, Lincoln worried that the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s notion of popular sovereignty was especially insidious because it was becoming popular.  Whereas most slavery issues had resulted in a clear divide between pro- and anti-slavery forces — between North and South — popular sovereignty had broad appeal among the populace, including northerners, because it seemed to be a form of self-government.   In each territory the people themselves got to decide the issue through a vote in a popular plebiscite or some other democratic means.  In other words, public opinion would be the ultimate decider, and what could be more democratic than that?

Thus did Lincoln hammer away at the evil of popular sovereignty at every opportunity, because if it became widely accepted, then slavery would spread until it was nationalized and the moral stain on America indelible.

Lincoln, of course, lost the senate campaign to Douglas, but his debate performance helped him win the presidency two years later, which put him in charge of removing that moral stain through the “fiery trial” (as he later put it) that was the Civil War.