The Kansas-Nebraska Crisis

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What was the impact of the Lincoln-Douglas debates?  

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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decision not to include blacks under the list of citizens granted protection by the Constitution and the latter having repealed the Missouri Compromise, granting individual territories the right to determine their own laws regarding slavery rather than prohibiting it in the northern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.

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Although the immediate consequences of the Lincoln-Douglas debates were merely regional, as the two politicians were opposing each other for a Senate seat in the state of Illinois, the debates drew national attention. Because of this, their impact was far-reaching. They were seen as a conflict between the Democratic and Republican parties over the divisive issues of sectionalism and slavery. The two candidates had widely differing viewpoints on how the issue of slavery should be handled legally.

The Republican Abraham Lincoln's viewpoint was that slavery was a moral wrong. He felt that the issue would not be resolved until slavery was completely abolished or completely embraced throughout the entire Union. During one of his speeches, he coined the famous phrase, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." In Lincoln's viewpoint, slavery violated the statement that all men were created equal found in the Declaration of Independence. He rejected Douglas's stance that the territories should decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery, as this was a compromise with the fact that slavery was an evil institution.

The Democrat Stephen A. Douglas argued that slavery was a local issue and should be decided at the local level. He pointed out that many of the Founding Fathers were slaveholders. He was convinced that if the territories were allowed to choose for themselves, they would choose to be free states.

In the nineteenth century, the people did not vote for Senators. Instead, they voted for members of the state legislature who elected the senators. As a result, Douglas won the Senate seat. However, as a result of the debates, Lincoln's stature as a politician grew, and he eventually became the president of the United States, while Douglas soon lost his power and influence.

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The Lincoln-Douglas debates were very significant. Both men were running for the United States Senate seat in Illinois in 1858. Slavery was a key topic in the debates. Abraham Lincoln stated he was against slavery, especially the spread of it. Stephen Douglas believed that the people should decide the issue, as he also believed in the concept of popular sovereignty. Stephen Douglas went on to explain how a territory could be unfriendly to slavery and work to prevent slavery from being established in that territory. In what was known as the Freeport Doctrine, Douglas said that if a territory didn’t want slavery, there would be nothing the Supreme Court could do about that. He argued that people would elect representatives that would be opposed to the establishment of slavery, which would prevent the passage of laws allowing slavery to exist.

The impact of these debates was significant. First, it gave Abraham Lincoln a national presence. Before these debates, many people didn’t know much about him. They now saw him as a candidate that was opposed to slavery. Stephen Douglas, while winning the United States Senate seat in 1858, made many enemies in the South because of the Freeport Doctrine. Southern Democrats couldn’t support his views. When he ran for President in 1860, the Democratic Party split into two parts. The Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas. The Southern Democrats, who couldn't support Douglas because of his views on slavery, nominated John C. Breckinridge. The splitting of the Democratic Party contributed to the Republican victory in the presidential election of 1860.

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The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a series of debates during the 1858 US Senate elections between republican candidate Abraham Lincoln and democratic candidate Stephen A. Douglas.  The impact of the debate dealt with slavery and states rights issues.

Douglas argued in the idea of popular sovereignty, where states should be given the right to decide by popular vote whether or not they would adopt slavery upon admission as a state to the US.  Lincoln argued that slavery was morally wrong, noting that Douglas was using the argument of popular sovereignty to extend slavery into the western states.  The debate brought up moral issues, potential violations of the Declaration of Independence, and slavery vs. popular sovereignty.  

To echo the sentiment of the previous answer, the Lincoln-Douglas debates also catapulted Lincoln into the public eye, with the later effect of making him a promising presidential candidate.  Prior to the debates, Lincoln was a relatively unknown politician.

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The only real impact of the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 was that they put Lincoln on the national "map" as a major political figure.

The debates were staged as part of a race between the two men for a seat in the US Senate.  Douglas won the election.  Even so, the debates catapulted Lincoln into the public eye.  They were widely covered by various newspapers because Douglas was such an important national figure.  Debating Douglas allowed Lincoln to become much better known and therefore contributed greatly to his becoming president two years later.

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