Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen A. Douglas

by Gordon Leidner of Great American History

"The following article was originally published in The Lincolnian, the newsletter of The Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia, in vol. XVI, no. 3, the November-December 1997 issue, pp. 5-7.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were lifelong rivals. As young men, they competed in the halls of the Illinois State Legislature for the success of their political programs, around the wood stove of a dry goods store for the esteem of their peers, and in the parlor of Mary Todd’s Springfield home for her affections. As middle aged men they debated one another on the Illinois prairies for a US Senate seat, and then on the national stage for the office of President of the United States. For nearly 25 years, these two men from Illinois were both bitter antagonists and—in the end—good friends.

Douglas was a native of Vermont. Born in 1813, he received an excellent education, in spite of the fact that his father, a doctor, died when Stephen was an infant. After a short apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker, he moved to Illinois for the purpose of practicing law—and was admitted to the bar in 1834. He entered politics and became an ardent "Jacksonian" Democrat. He was elected to the office of state attorney in 1835, and the state legislature in 1836. (The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, Neely).

Abraham Lincoln was born the son of a poor Kentucky farmer in 1809. Like Douglas, Abe lost a parent. His mother died when he was only nine years old. Lincoln received little in the way of formal education, but taught himself by borrowing books from friends and neighbors. After helping his father and stepmother move to Illinois in 1831, he struck out on his own and moved to New Salem, IL. Recognizing his popularity with the locals, he declared himself a Whig candidate for the state legislature in March of 1832. Failing in his first attempt at political office, he was elected state representative on his second attempt and took office in the capital of Vandalia in 1834. Borrowing books and teaching himself law; he was admitted to the bar in 1837.

It was in the halls of the state legislature in Vandalia, Illinois that Lincoln and Douglas first locked horns. Douglas was the Democrats’ leader in the battle against the state bank, and it was his claim that the bank was a tool of "elitist financiers" that caused Lincoln to retort: "Mr. Chairman, this movement (to discredit the state bank) is exclusively the work of politicians; a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people, and who, to say the most of them, are, taken as a mass, at least one long step removed from honest men. I say this with the greater freedom because, being a politician myself, none can regard it as personal." (Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Basler, v. I, pp. 65-66)

Whereas Lincoln served in the Illinois State Legislature from 1834 to 1842, Douglas soon resigned from that body and took on the job of registrar of the Springfield land office, and later, Illinois Supreme Court justice. Resigning his position as jurist, he was elected to the US Congress in 1843. In the early 1840s many of Springfield’s politicians met regularly in a room above Joshua Speed’s dry goods store, swapping stories and engaging in informal debate. In this setting Lincoln was in his element—cracking jokes, telling tall tales, and baffling opponents with his logical arguments. Douglas, never capable of a funny story, could only offer sober dispute. (Abraham Lincoln: 1809-1858, Beveridge, v. II, p. 2). It was during the 1840 presidential election that Douglas proposed they move their debates about the candidates from Speed’s store to a more public forum, so he and Lincoln participated in street debates that continued for a week. (Abraham Lincoln, Thomas, p. 74)

During the winter of 1839-1840 Mary Todd, daughter of the wealthy Robert Smith Todd of Kentucky and one of Springfield’s prettiest and most marriageable "belles," began entertaining many of the town’s eligible bachelors. Mary was living with her older sister Elizabeth Edwards and Elizabeth’s husband, Ninian. The Edwards’s home became one of the social centers of Springfield, visited by all the town’s eligible young men, including Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.

Douglas courted Mary briefly, and according to Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd’s seamstress during the White House years, proposed marriage. When Mary refused, Douglas purportedly told her she had "thrown away" her best chance to "rule in the White House." Mary expressed confidence that she would yet be "Mrs. President." (Behind the Scenes, E. Keckley, p. 230) Never publicly admitting this intimacy with Douglas, Mary later said of Douglas that she "liked him well enough, but that was all."

Mary’s heart went out to Lincoln, the tall, awkward young lawyer that could claim neither fame, fortune, nor family. Although Elizabeth and Ninian disapproved of Lincoln, considering him to be Mary’s social inferior, they could not prevent the young couple from falling in love. Lincoln and Mary set their wedding date for November 4, 1842. While blackening his boots and getting ready for the ceremony, a friend asked Lincoln where he was going. "To hell, I reckon" he anxiously replied. Lincoln and Mary were wed in the Edwards’ parlor—in spite of the fact that he had once stated he could "never be satisfied with anyone blockhead enough to have me." (With Malice Toward None, S. B. Oates, p. 45)

For the first several years of their marriage, Lincoln’s political efforts were shunted to the background while he built up his law practice. Finally, Lincoln was elected to the Thirtieth US Congress in 1846, which did not begin session until late 1847. By that time Douglas was a US Senator, so the two rivals did not meet in direct debate while Lincoln was in Washington. During Lincoln’s two years in Congress, their arguments were indirect, consisting primarily of rhetoric in either support of or opposition to the Democratic administration of James Polk.

After his single term in Congress, Lincoln returned to Springfield in 1849 to resume his law practice. Douglas continued on in the Senate, gaining national fame as one of the Democratic Party’s boldest young leaders.

It was in the mid-1850’s that Douglas and Lincoln began one of the most famous political conflicts in American history. Douglas, a champion of western expansion, was interested in gaining southern Congressional support for the development of the Nebraska Territories. To this end, he reckoned that if he could get around the old Missouri Compromise of 1820—that had precluded additional slave states above the latitude of 36 degrees, 30 minutes—he might gain political support from southern leaders. He therefore introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was signed into law in 1854. Kansas-Nebraska proclaimed "Popular Sovereignty" in the territories, allowing the people of each new territory to decide whether or not slavery would be admitted when they achieved statehood, rather than restricting it as the Missouri Compromise had.

Lincoln, who had not sought political office for years, was "thunderstruck" by Kansas-Nebraska. He believed the Act’s intention was to deliberately spread slavery into Kansas and other territories. Alarmed at the possibility of slavery’s further spread, he secured the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination, and ran against Douglas for the latter’s senate seat in 1858.

Douglas was a nationally-known political figure in 1858. His eastern friends thought that the "Little Giant" would easily defeat the hardly-known Lincoln. But Douglas knew better. "I shall have my hands full," Douglas warned. "He is the strong man of his party—full of wit, facts, and dates—and the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West. He is as honest as he is shrewd, and I beat him my victory will be hardly won." (Abraham Lincoln, B. Thomas, p. 182)

In the "Great Debates" the primary issue was slavery. Douglas argued in favor of "Popular Sovereignty" in the territories, and tried to paint Lincoln as an extremist who was in favor of the social equality of blacks and whites—an anathema to most whites of that day. Lincoln’s main theme was that slavery was a moral evil that should not be allowed to spread. Lincoln, who sometimes amused the audience by calling Douglas a "great man," and himself a "mere mortal," kept hammering at Douglas’ refusal to admit the immorality of slavery. During one of the debates Lincoln said: "(Douglas) has the high distinction, so far as I know, of never having said slavery is either right or wrong. Almost everybody says one or the other, but the Judge never does." (The Lincoln Encyclopedia, A. Shaw, p. 308)

In the Senate election there was no direct popular vote, and neither Douglas’s nor Lincoln’s names appeared on any ballots. In those days, the voters simply elected their state representatives—who then elected the senators. It could be said that, technically, Lincoln "beat" Douglas in the debates, because Lincoln’s Republican legislative candidates received more votes than Douglas’ did. But with the Democratic holdovers in the legislature, Douglas’ party maintained a 54 to 46 majority. Nearly despondent over the loss, Lincoln felt his political future was bleak, and stated "I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten." (Collected Works of Lincoln, Basler, v. III, p. 339)

But two years later, Lincoln and Douglas would meet for a final conflict—this time for the country’s highest political office. The issue of slavery in the territories caused a Democratic Party split—the northern Democrats choosing Douglas as their nominee for president and the southern Democrats selecting John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky. Lincoln shrewdly outmaneuvered the Republican party’s front-runner, William Seward to take the top of the Republican ticket , and when the presidential campaign of 1860 finally got underway, the field was filled with four candidates. These were Lincoln, Douglas, Breckenridge, and Bell. John Bell was a candidate of the small "Constitutional Union" party, which consisted mostly of die-hard Whigs.

With the split in the Democratic Party, a Republican victory was almost certain. Lincoln waged a campaign that was "conventional" for that day—staying home and avoiding public speeches. He allowed his supporters to speak for him. Douglas, however, was anything but conventional. He campaigned furiously, even in the South, denouncing secession and pleading for reconciliation and compromise. In the end, Lincoln won easily—acquiring 1,866,452 popular votes to Douglas’ 1,376,957, and 180 Electoral College votes to Douglas’ 12. Within a few weeks of Lincoln’s election, seven states seceded from the Union.

At Lincoln’s inauguration, when he stood up to make his inaugural address, he awkwardly looked around for a place to put his hat and cane. In a gesture of friendship and conciliation, Douglas stepped forward to hold them for Lincoln. No doubt an ironic smile passed between them. (Abraham Lincoln, B. Thomas, p. 245)

After the inaugural, Douglas was soon back on the road, traveling north and south, urging restoration of the Union. He strongly supported Lincoln’s stance of military resistance to the rebellion. During an exhaustive series of speaking engagements in the South, in which Douglas urged a return to the Union, he contracted typhoid fever. Douglas died as a result of the fever in Chicago, on June 3, 1861. Perhaps recalling that he had once said "(Douglas) and I are about the best friends in the world," Lincoln wept unashamedly upon hearing of Douglas’s death. (Stephen Douglas: Defender of the Union, Capers, p. 183)

Although Lincoln could never convince Douglas to publicly admit slavery was a moral evil, the two men were able to agree on one major issue—the Union must be maintained. It was a cause for which both men willingly gave their lives.