Lincoln and Douglas

As recounted in Lincoln and Douglas by Allen C. Guelzo, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had seemingly settled, at least for a time, the issue of the expansion of slavery in the western territories of the United States. Crafted by Kentucky senator Henry Clay, the compromise had provided for the establishment of slave territory south of the southern boundary of the newly established state of Missouri. Clay’s compromise only bought time. As settlers moved into new territories west of the Mississippi River, they brought with them the issue of slavery. The annexation of the Republic of Texas as a slave state in the 1840’s brought the issue again to a head.

Democratic senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, the party’s 1848 candidate for president, inserted into the argument the concept of “popular sovereignty,” the idea that the decision of whether a future state should be “free” or legalize slavery should be left to a vote of the citizens within the territory rather than to a decision of Congress. Clay once again attempted to craft a compromise that would avert possible secession and war. However, elderly and in poor health, Clay was limited in what he could accomplish. Clay died in 1852, and the leadership for the issue of popular sovereignty fell to Stephen Douglas.

In this manner, Guelzo, a leading Lincoln historian, provides the background to the issues that undergirded what were arguably the most important debates in American political history. Judge Douglas, the incumbent senator from Illinois in 1858, had taken a strict constitutional interpretation on the issue of slavery: Only the people directly affected could decide the issue. As long as only Texas or the Southwest was affected, desert lands largely uninhabitable, the North was willing to ignore the issue. However, when slavery threatened to expand into the Nebraska Territory, potentially leaving Congress under the control of slave states, the issue again became one of national importance. Division of the Nebraska Territory into the future states of Nebraska and Kansas in 1854, the bill for which was shepherded by Douglas, resulted in an explosion of blood. What became known as “Bleeding Kansas” was the answer to popular sovereignty as settlers, both for and against slavery, moved into the territories and created a de facto civil war. Making the issue even more volatile as a national issue was the Dred Scott decision, in a portion of which the Supreme Court ruled that the “right” of slavery could not be legally outlawed.

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln was still a relatively unknown politician outside of his adopted state of Illinois. Elected to the state legislature as a Whig in the 1830’s, Lincoln first came into conflict with Douglas when he campaigned on behalf of his law partner, John Stuart, running against Douglas for a congressional seat in 1838; allegedly Lincoln and Douglas were also competitors for the hand of Mary Todd, Lincoln’s future wife. In 1846 Lincoln was elected to a single term in Congress, where, except for an ill-conceived opposition to President James Polk, he generated minimal notice.

Lincoln began his vocal opposition to Douglas’s support for popular sovereignty at Douglas rallies throughout Illinois in 1854. As Guelzo points out, the effect was to galvanize antislavery elements in the state, but it accomplished little in uniting the Whig Party. At the same time, the strength (and growing popularity) of Lincoln’s arguments brought him to the notice of the newly established abolitionist Republican Party. The seat held by Senator Douglas became available in 1858, and Lincoln was the primary opposition to Douglas for that seat.

In describing the background to Lincoln’s candidacy for the Senate, Guelzo notes the two major problems Lincoln faced. First, the Republicans’ chances in any election required the support of other disaffected voters, principally disaffected Whigs. Second was the question of whether Douglas was strongly committed to the Democratic Party, or whether he was willing to join the Republicans in exchange for their support of candidates allied with Douglas’s position on the issue of slavery. To most, the idea of Republican support for Douglas was anathema. There is evidence Douglas may have been serious about such proposals.

At this point early in the election year of 1858, Lincoln’s job was to convince the state Republican Party that Douglas was no supporter of its position. One method to carry this out was to hold a series of state conventions or...

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