Lincoln the Underdog

The seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 were not really debates by modern standards – one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the other then spoke for 90 minutes, and finally the first speaker gave a 30-minute response. Just imagine how today’s typical audience would react!

And while Abraham Lincoln – the Republican candidate – won the popular vote by a small margin, Stephen A. Douglas was reelected to the Illinois Senate by the legislature. So did Lincoln emerge the loser? On the contrary – national media coverage of the debates greatly raised Lincoln’s profile, making him a viable Republican candidate in the 1860 presidential election.

The main issue under discussion was of course slavery – and more specifically, the question of slavery’s expansion into the territories. Douglas favored the doctrine of popular sovereignty, whereby the people of a territory could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery; Lincoln feared that popular sovereignty would nationalize slavery, which he viewed as a “monstrous injustice.” In Lincoln’s stirring words:

“That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

From a political strategist’s perspective, the mere existence of these debates was a major coup for Lincoln. The incumbent Senator Douglas was better-financed and better-organized, and had little to gain from debating him on equal footing. So Lincoln adopted a classic underdog strategy: he simply followed Douglas around the state, and spoke wherever he spoke. When Lincoln’s friend and supporter, Bloomington lawyer William H. Hanna, informed him that Douglas was scheduled to be in Bloomington on Friday, July 16th, Lincoln replied, “No accident preventing, I will be with you Friday afternoon and evening.”

Here you can see Lincoln’s response to Hanna, and learn more about the path the debates then took.


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