Lincoln-Douglas Debates

US #1115 was issued in Freeport, Illinois on the 100th anniversary of the debate there.

On August 21, 1858, Abraham Lincoln participated in the first of seven debates against Stephen Douglas.  Part of a race for an Illinois seat in the US Senate, they became known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates or the Great Debates of 1858.

Lincoln’s opposition of Douglas had actually begun a few years earlier.  In 1854, he vocally opposed the Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise that had restricted slavery.

US #1115 – Fleetwood First Day Cover.

The act included popular sovereignty, which gave people the right to determine whether or not to allow slavery in their territory. In response to this, Lincoln delivered his “Peoria Speech,” which claimed the Kansas Act “declared indifference, but as I must think, covert, real zeal, for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. 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…”

US #4382 – Issued for Lincoln’s 200th birthday, this stamp features an illustration of a Lincoln-Douglas debate.

By June 1858, the Illinois Republicans unanimously nominated Lincoln as their “first and only choice for the United States Senate.” That evening, Lincoln delivered the speech that catapulted him into the national limelight – the House Divided speech.

US #4382 – Fleetwood First Day Cover.

The attention Lincoln received from his speech led Douglas to agree to a series of debates.  The first was held on August 21, 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois. Subsequent debates were held on August 27 in Freeport, September 15 in Jonesboro, September 18 in Charleston, October 7 in Galesburg, October 13 in Quincy, and October 15 in Alton.

US #122 – Lincoln Pictorial stamp.

More than just the Senate seat was at stake – the party of whichever man won the election would also control the Illinois state legislature.  One topic was especially prominent throughout the debates – slavery, with much emphasis on expanding the institution into new territories.

Item #M10394 – Collection of 42 mint Lincoln stamps.

Due to the growing interest in the slavery issue in neighboring states and across the country, stenographers were sent to the debates to record Lincoln and Douglas’ arguments to be published in newspapers.  However, newspapers of the day were often slanted toward the different political parties. It was common for Democratic newspapers to correct the grammatical errors made by the stenographers recording Douglas’ speeches while leaving Lincoln’s speeches in their rough form. This made Lincoln appear less intelligent than his opponent.  Newspapers supporting either candidate often took part in this practice.

With the publication of his stirring words in countless Republican newspapers across the country, Lincoln established himself as an excellent speaker and soon found his national fame and popularity growing. Shortly after the debates, Lincoln collected his speeches and had them published in a book, which further increased his popularity.

Though Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, he had gained the national fame that would lead him to the White House.

Click here to read the speeches from each debate.

Click here for more Lincoln stamps.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. I’m shocked. Do you mean to tell me that the media would intentionally misrepresent the “news” to conform to their particular bias (one way or the other) and then cynically and hypocritically hide that bias behind the First Amendment? I’m sure glad that never happens today, just ask any member of the media!

    1. I don’t think you quite understand nineteenth century newspapers. They were openly favorable toward the Whig Party, the Democratic Party, or later the new Republican Party. They made no pretense of being neutral. They were sort of like Fox News which everybody knows is pro Republican, despite their motto of being “Fair and

  2. You know, you’re right Mike (if I correctly interpret your meaning), but only to a certain extent. What some call the mainstream news outlets do have a bias. They are biased toward facts. As John Adams told the jury as the defense attorney in the Boston Massacre trial, “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Some prominent people have termed facts that they don’t like, “Fake News,” but you get the idea.

  3. I believe it was back during the Bicentennial or some other historical celebration, there was a television drama; teleplay, about the Lincoln/Douglass Debate. It starred Charles Durning as Steven Douglass, Hope Lange ( Ghost and Mrs Muir) as Douglass’s’ wife, and Hal Holbruck? as Abraham Lincoln. Excellent production, performances, historical presentation. Watching the scenes involving the debate, I felt as I was there. The presentation was filmed using videotape, not film.

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