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Stephen Douglas defeated Abraham Lincoln in the 1858 Illinois senatorial campaign.

Or at least Lincoln did not unseat the incumbent Democrat. At the time--until 1913--U.S. senators were not elected by a direct vote of the people but by state legislatures. On election day, the voters of Illinois elected more Democrats to the legislature than Republicans, even though there were more votes cast for Republicans than for Democrats. And the legislature returned Douglas to Washington.

But things were not quite that simple.

During the campaign, Lincoln and Douglas held seven debates, one in each of the state's congressional districts. They touched on a lot of issues, but were mainly about whether slavery ought to be allowed in the country's western territories.

Douglas had been one of the chief architects of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which affirmed the doctrine of "popular sovereignty"--the policy of letting voters (in effect, white males) decide the issue. To oversimplify in the way that newspaper columnists customarily do, Kansas-Nebraska created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, primarily to create a territorial infrastructure that would oversee the settlement of millions of acres of arable farmland for homesteading and to facilitate the building of a transcontinental railroad. But in order to do that, the question of slavery had to be addressed.

And so both anti-slavery "Free-Staters" and pro-slavery "Border Ruffians" rushed into Kansas. Basically a war broke out. The territorial capital of Lecompton became so hostile to the anti-slavery faction that they set up their own unofficial and unrecognized capital in Topeka. In 1856, John Brown and members of an abolitionist militia group known as the Pottawatomie Rifles murdered five pro-slavery farmers in Franklin County. Kansas bled.

The Republican Party was formed in 1854 as a direct reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise which excluded slavery from any territory north of the 36°30´parallel. By October 1854, Lincoln, who up until then had considered slavery a "minor issue," had moved off his centrist position of gradual emancipation and opposition to the "extremes" of both sides to become a abolitionist. He attacked the Kansas-Nebraska Act, saying that while it "declared indifference" it manifested "a covert real zeal for the spread of slavery."

"I cannot but hate it," he said in his famous Peoria Speech. "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."

Finding his Whig party moribund, Lincoln joined the Republicans. And he took his moral argument against slavery straight to Stephen Douglas. And he lost that election.

But in doing so, he forced Douglas to answer an impossible question during the second of the debates, held in Freeport in late August. While Douglas had often expressed respect for the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which stated that slavery could not be excluded in any U.S. territory prior to statehood, seemed incompatible with Douglas' notion of popular sovereignty. So could slavery be excluded from territories by local legislation?

Douglas tried to finesse the question by suggesting that despite the court's ruling, the people of a territory could encourage or discourage slavery by passing legislation. Douglas' Freeport Doctrine--called the Freeport Heresy by pro-slavery seeking protections for the institution--cost Douglas support with both abolitionists and pro-slavers. (According to legend, Republican leaders warned Lincoln that if he asked the question, he would never be elected senator. And Lincoln replied that if Douglas answered it, the Democrat would never be president.)

"The fight must go on," he wrote to his friend and supporter Henry Ashbury. "The cause of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one or even one hundred defeats. Douglas had the ingenuity to be supported in the late contest both as the best means to break down, and to uphold the slave interest. No ingenuity can keep those antagonistic elements in harmony long. Another explosion will soon come.

"I am glad I made the late race. It gave me a hearing on the great and durable question of the age, which I could have had in no other way; and though I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten, I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I am gone."

But Ashbury and his law partner Abraham Jonas would not allow Lincoln to slink off the stage. They whispered his name to Horace Greeley as the Republicans' best hope in the 1860 election.

Politics has never been the realm of saints. Things were rough in Lincoln's day as well, and he knew the limits of the possible as well as anyone. As polarized as we seem now, our present arguments are trifles compared to the questions Lincoln and Douglas tussled over.

I am afraid that if I had the moment to choose, I might have chosen Douglas over Lincoln in 1860 as well as in 1858. Douglas did not believe armed struggle was irrepressible, but Lincoln's election ensured it would not be avoided. Before he was inaugurated, seven states seceded from the Union. I might have sought a safer choice.

Some of us have more appetite for iconoclasm and debunking than hagiography; Lincoln can be vilified by those unwilling to measure the dead by the standards that existed at their time. Some deny Lincoln's greatness because he failed to anticipate the current vogue for "sensitivity" (which has rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the evaporation of manners).

Others are simply lost in their own fractured times, disconnected from history and tradition, cocooned in a solipsistic web and fed by cables forcing light and sound. For them, Lincoln is just the man on the penny, another obsolete artifact.

It is good to remember Lincoln was a politician imbued with the requisite ruthlessness and ambition. And that he was a transcendent politician. His cool fire is banked to embers; never dying, always available to those seeking to spark a torch. We occupy the country he saved for us.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 02/12/2019

Print Headline: Lincoln sinks from view


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