The Debate that Changed History | Opinion

Every four years, partisans for each major political party insist that November will bring the most important election in history. And given today's widespread disagreements over America's past, and especially its founding, voters might be tempted to think Tuesday's Trump-Biden debate is the most important debate in American history. But it isn't. The United States has had to face even bigger questions about the nature of its democracy than it does in this year's election. A look at what was, in fact, the most important debate in our history can help us remember what saw us through.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates in the Illinois senatorial race of 1858 altered the course of history. The central question they addressed was profound: would the nation continue drifting away from the principles of the American founding, or would it reaffirm its devotion to the Declaration of Independence and strive to live by the precept "that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?" In the debates, Abraham Lincoln championed the principle of human equality, while Senator Stephen A. Douglas championed the principle of human inequality.

The first clash of the 1858 campaign took place in Chicago, where Douglas flagrantly played the race card. In the third of the seven debates, he went even further, telling the audience at Jonesboro that the "signers of the Declaration had no reference to the negro whatever when they declared all men to be created equal. They desired to express by that phrase, white men, men of European birth and European descent, and had no reference either to the negro...or any other inferior and degraded race, when they spoke of the equality of men." The American government, he proclaimed, had been set up by white men, for white men.

Lincoln emphatically disagreed, arguing that the Founders included Black people within the Declaration of Independence's reference to "all men." In Chicago, he urged his audience to reject Douglas' race-baiting: "let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position.... Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal."

The year before, Lincoln had summarized the differences between the political parties in the same vein: "The Republicans inculcate that the negro is a man; that his bondage is cruelly wrong, and that the field of his oppression ought not to be enlarged. The Democrats deny his manhood; deny, or dwarf to insignificance, the wrong of his bondage; so far as possible, crush all sympathy for him, and cultivate and excite hatred and disgust against him; compliment themselves as Union-savers for doing so; and call the indefinite outspreading of his bondage 'a sacred right of self-government.'"

In the 1858 debates, Lincoln told audiences that if they believed slavery was wrong and should not be allowed to spread, they ought to vote Republican; otherwise, they ought to vote Democrat. Douglas was neither pro-slavery nor anti-slavery, stating that he cared not whether slavery was voted up or down. Such moral neutrality, he hoped, would unite the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party and enable him to become president. To that end, he espoused "popular sovereignty," stipulating that settlers moving west, not Congress, should decide whether slavery would be permitted to spread. That tactic worked well until 1857, when the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories; by extension, territorial legislatures (creatures of Congress) could not do so either. Thus "popular sovereignty" was unconstitutional.

To avoid that judicial obstacle, Douglas fatefully argued in the second debate (held in Freeport) that although the Court may have formally denied voters in a territory the power to exclude slavery, states could limit slavery informally by denying slaveholders legal protection. Slavery, he said, "cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere unless supported by local police regulations," which "can only be furnished by the local legislature."

This statement, elicited by one of Lincoln's interrogatories, became known as the "Freeport Doctrine." Because it allowed anti-slavery forces to circumvent the Dred Scott ruling, Southerners indignantly refused to support Douglas's presidential bid. By forcing Douglas to proclaim the Freeport Doctrine and thus lose Southern support—and thereby forfeit his chance to win the presidency—Lincoln in effect halted the country's steady movement away from the principles of 1776.

Lincoln memorial
A statue of Abraham Lincoln is seen at the Lincoln Memorial February 12, 2016 in Washington, D.C. Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty

The implications of "popular sovereignty" were ominous, for Douglas advocated overseas expansion as well as white supremacy. The U.S. must expand, he said, for the territory recently acquired in the war with Mexico was rapidly filling up, and Americans were already moving in to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Popular sovereignty in those lands would be exercised only by white settlers, not the native populations, who were, Douglas claimed, inferior and unfit to rule.

If Douglas had won the presidency in 1860, the United States may well have become a major colonial power committed to the doctrine of racial inequality, rather than a country dedicated to the spirit of 1776. Little would distinguish it from imperialist countries not founded on principle of human equality.

Even by running against Douglas, Lincoln was making a bold statement. In late 1857 and early 1858, Douglas persuaded some eastern Republicans that he was their ally because he opposed the "Lecompton Constitution" of Kansas. The Kansas Territory had been thrown open to settlement in 1854 by Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed slavery to expand into areas previously set aside for freedom. The political uproar created by that statute led to the founding of a new political party (the Republicans) pledged to containing slavery and putting it "in the course of ultimate extinction," in Lincoln's phrase. Even though opponents of slavery far outnumbered its supporters in the Kansas Territory, the latter, through fraud, dominated the constitutional convention. Ignoring the dubious legitimacy of the new state's pro-slavery constitution, President James Buchanan urged Congress to admit Kansas as a slave state.

When anti-slavery forces reacted furiously, Douglas tried to woo them by defying the president. The resulting feud convinced some eastern Republicans that Democrats' intra-party strife might ensure a Republican victory in 1860, so they urged their Illinois counterparts not to contest Douglas' reelection. When Lincoln launched his 1858 Senate campaign, he argued that Republicans should back no one (like Douglas) who did not share their opposition to slavery. He further argued that Douglas' agnostic attitude toward slavery debauched the public mind, leading it to abandon the principles of 1776. If Douglas were to convince many people that they should not care about the morality of slavery, the Supreme Court might issue a new Dred Scott decision ruling that no state could outlaw slavery. Thus, the U.S. would no longer be a nation half slave and half free, for every state would be slave state.

Later in the campaign, Lincoln told an audience that "if you have been taught doctrines conflicting with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence; if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur, and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated by our charter of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the Revolution....I charge you to drop every paltry and insignificant thought for any man's success. It is nothing; I am nothing; Judge Douglas is nothing. But do not destroy that immortal emblem of Humanity—the Declaration of American Independence."

Lincoln lost the 1858 election, but his eloquence gained him so many admirers that two years later he was able to win his party's presidential nomination and the subsequent election, defeating Douglas and consigning his doctrine of human inequality to the dustbin of history. Soon thereafter, Lincoln would lead the North to victory in the Civil War and consign the Confederacy and its doctrine of human inequality to the dustbin. The nation emerging from the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign—which rendered Douglas unelectable in 1860—would renew its commitment to the spirit of 1776 by adding to the Constitution the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, thereby abolishing slavery, forbidding states to deny voting rights on the basis of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude," and guaranteeing equal citizenship rights. If Lincoln had not torpedoed Douglas's presidential chances and gained the recognition that paved his road to the White House—in the process reaffirming America's commitment to the principle of human equality—that outcome may have been quite different.

Michael Burlingame is the Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at University of Illinois Springfield, and author and editor of numerous works on Abraham Lincoln, including Abraham Lincoln: A Life.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.