The Lincoln-Douglas debates were born out of recriminations over political decisions such as the Dred Scott case and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. These examples—the former dealing with a landmark Supreme Court decision not to include blacks under the list of citizens granted protection by the Constitution and the latter having repealed the Missouri Compromise, granting individual territories the right to determine their own laws regarding slavery rather than prohibiting it in the northern states outright—were symptomatic of a larger public dispute concerning the immorality of human slavery.
The contrasting political philosophies of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas essentially represented the age-old dispute as to whether decisions of national significance should be left to individual states or should be absorbed in the purview of the federal government. Senator Douglas, a Democrat, represented the former view, Republican Abraham Lincoln, the latter.
Douglass specifically advocated for what he called “popular sovereignty,” which he believed to be the bulwark of democratic governance. For him, the ability for state governments and state legislatures to determine what was and was not in the best interest of the peoples under their jurisdiction, including questions of slavery, was the hallmark of local self-government—the principles upon which, he argued, the country had been founded.
Thus, Douglass supported the rationality of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave state governments power to determine whether they would tolerate the institution. For example, when Lincoln pressed him as to how popular sovereignty could be reconciled with the fact that some slave-holders transported their slaves into free states, Douglass famously replied with his “Freeport Doctrine.” Whatever the government may say regarding the legality of slavery, it could never exist anywhere unless it were supported by local police institutions. This statement ominously foreshadowed the coming Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln was a fair-minded, equable child of the frontier. He had a keen mind for the way practical experience intersected with the larger principles of morality upon which the Constitution had been founded. He abhorred slavery on moral grounds but understood that it could not be eradicated overnight. To eliminate the institution by official decree would be disastrous for the Southern economy and would undoubtedly lead to social collapse.
Instead, Lincoln believed that slavery needed to die naturally, fading over time into an anachronistic obscurity. In his arguments with Douglass, Lincoln stressed that blacks had an equal right to the fruits of their own labor and emphasized Douglass’ indifference to the quotidian suffering of the enslaved person’s everyday existence.
These debates were important because they indicated what mentalities America’s major political figures held on the eve of the Civil War. In the early years of the conflict, from around 1861–62, Lincoln is said to have never predicated the ongoing efforts of the Union army on abolitionism—a decision, he argued, that would only further disintegrate the Union. Rather, as reflected in his debates with Douglas, he was first and foremost committed to maintaining the sanctity of the United States, keeping critical border states like West Virginia and Kentucky loyal to the North, and preventing an irreversible schism. It was only after the defeat of the Confederate Army was a foregone conclusion, and the stability of his norther alliances was guaranteed, that he issued his Emancipation Proclamation.