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Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 1858

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

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In 1858, Abraham Lincoln challenged Stephen A. Douglas for Douglas’s seat in the U.S. Senate. The two men engaged in seven open-air debates that garnered national attention. Douglas and Lincoln differed in their support of the popular sovereignty doctrine, recently called into question in the 1857 Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sand ford. In the Springfield speech, Lincoln famously stated, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” and pointed out the flaws in the popular sovereignty doctrine, which had allowed for the inhabitants of a territory to decide by majority vote whether slavery would be permitted there. In his reply two months later, Douglas explained his views on popular sovereignty in what would become known as the Free port Doctrine. Despite the recent Dred Scott decision, Douglas held that the people of the territories had the right to decide for themselves, via the ballot, whether slavery should be permitted in the territory. Though Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, their debates brought Lincoln national attention and ultimately damaged Douglas’s career.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote these documents and what was their relationship to each other?
  2. Both authors were reacting to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scot v. Sandford. Why was this decision controversial?

Source A: Abraham Lincoln – Springfield, Illinois, speech, June 16, 1858

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; . . .
Let any one who doubts, carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combination—piece of machinery, so to speak— compounded of the Nebraska doctrine, and the Dred Scott decision. Let him consider not only what work the machinery is adapted to do, and how well  adapted; but also, let him study the history of its construction . . .
The notable argument of “squatter sovereignty,” otherwise called “sacred right of self-government” . . . was so perverted in this attempted use of it as to amount to just this: That if anyone man choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object. That argument was incorporated into the Nebraska bill itself, in the language which follows: “It being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any Territory or state, nor to exclude it therefrom; but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States.” . . .
“But,” said opposition members, “let us amend the bill so as to expressly declare that the people of the Territory may exclude slavery.” “Not we,” said the friends of the measure; and down they voted the amendment.. . .
The several points of the Dred Scott decision, in connection with Senator Douglas’s “care not” policy, constitute the piece of machinery, in its present state of advancement. . . .
First, that no negro slave, imported as such from Africa, and no descendant of such slave, can ever be a citizen of any State, in the sense of that term as used in the Constitution of the United States. This point is made in order to deprive the negro, in every possible event, of the benefit of that provision of the United States Constitution, which declares that “The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States.”
Secondly, that “subject to the Constitution of the United States,” neither Congress nor a Territorial Legislature can exclude slavery from any United States Territory. This point is made in order that individual men may fill up the territories with slaves, without danger of losing them as property, and thus to enhance the chances of permanency to the institution through all the future.
Thirdly, that whether the holding a negro in actual slavery in a free State, makes him free, as against the holder, the United States courts will not decide, but will leave to be decided by the courts of any slave State the negro may be forced into by the master.. . .
It should not be overlooked that, by the Nebraska Bill, the people of a State as well as Territory, were to be left “perfectly free,” “subject only to the Constitution.” Why mention a State? They were legislating for territories, and not for or about States. Certainly the people of a State are and ought to be subject to the Constitution of the United States; but why is mention of this lugged into this merely territorial law? Why are the people of a territory and the people of a state there in lumped together, and their relation to the Constitution therein treated as being precisely the same?
While the opinion of the Court, by Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott case, and the separate opinions of all the concurring Judges, expressly declare that the Constitution of the United States neither permits Congress nor a Territorial legislature to exclude slavery from any United States territory, they all omit to declare whether or not the same Constitution permits a state, or the people of a State, to exclude it.. . .
Put that and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits. And this may especially be expected if the doctrine of “care not whether slavery be voted down or voted up,” shall gain upon the public mind sufficiently to give promise that such a decision can be maintained when made.
Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the States. Welcome, or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown.

Source B: Stephen Douglas – Reply to Abraham Lincoln at the Free port debate, August 27, 1858

Vocabulary Text
propound(v): to put forward or pose The next question propounded to me by Mr. Lincoln is, can the people of a Territory in any lawful way, against the wishes of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution? I answer emphatically, as Mr. Lincoln has heard me answer a hundred times from every stump in Illinois, that in my opinion the people of a Territory can, by lawful means, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution.  Mr. Lincoln knew that I had answered that question over and over again. . . .
It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations. (Right, right.) Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature, and if the people are opposed to slavery they will elect representatives to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst. If, on the contrary, they are for it, their legislation will favor its extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a slave Territory or a free Territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska bill.  I hope Mr. Lincoln deems my answer satisfactory on that point. . . .
The Nebraska bill provided that the legislative power, and authority of the said Territory, should extend to all rightful subjects of legislation consistent with the organic act and the Constitution of the United States.  It did not make any exception as to slavery, but gave all the power that it was possible for Congress to give, without violating the Constitution to the Territorial Legislature, with no exception or limitation on the subject of slavery at all. The language of that bill which I have quoted, gave the full power and the full authority over the subject of slavery, affirmatively and negatively, to introduce it or exclude it, so far as the Constitution of the United States would permit. . . .
that whenever it becomes necessary, in our growth and progress, to acquire more territory, that I am in favor of it, without reference to the question of slavery, and when we have acquired it, I will leave the people free to do as they please, either to make it slave or free territory, as they prefer.. . .
I want to know of Mr. Lincoln whether he will vote for the admission of another slave State.
dissolution(n): the conclusion or shutting down of something He tells you the Union cannot exist unless the States are all free or all slave; he tells you that he is opposed to making them all slave, and hence he is for making them all free, in order that the Union may exist; and yet he will not say that he will not vote against another slave State, knowing that the Union must be dissolved if he votes for it. I ask you if that is fair dealing? . . . Show me that it is my duty in order to save the Union to do a particular act, and I will do it if the Constitution does not prohibit it. (Applause.) I am not for the dissolution of the Union under any circumstances. (Renewed applause.) I will pursue no course of conduct that will give just cause for the dissolution of the Union. The hope of the friends of freedom throughout the world rests upon the perpetuity of this Union. The down-trodden and oppressed people who are suffering under European despotism all look with hope and anxiety to the American Union as the only resting place and permanent home of freedom and self-government.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What does Lincoln see as the inevitable result of the slavery issue?
  2. What two events have combined to change the paradigm when it comes to slavery in the United States?
  3. How does Lincoln make a case that the “sacred right of self-government” argument is hypocritical?
  4. In what way does the Dred Scot decision change the relationship between enslaved persons and the U.S. Constitution?
  5. Why does Lincoln point out concern over the Dred Scot decision’s blurring of the authority of a state with that of a territory?
  6. What does Lincoln fear from a future Supreme Court case that builds on the Dred Scott precedent?
  7. When does Douglas believe the people of a territory can choose to eliminate slavery within their borders?
  8. Why does Douglas feel any Supreme Court decision is irrelevant to the reality of slavery in any particular territory?
  9. What does Douglas claim the Kansas-Nebraska Act says about the right of the people of territories to vote on the issue of slavery?
  10. How should the slavery issue be decided in future U.S. territories, according to Douglas?
  11. Why does Douglas claim Lincoln is being inconsistent when he says the nation must be all slave or all free?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Summarize each author’s point of view in one sentence, using your own words.
    1. Author A: Stephen Douglas
    2. Author B: Abraham Lincoln
  2. Select the sentence from each source that best demonstrates the author’s point of view.
    1. Author A: Stephen Douglas
    2. Author B: Abraham Lincoln
  3. Compare the two authors’ arguments. To what extent do these points of view support or oppose each other?
  4. Which argument do you find more convincing? Explain how the author’s use of evidence led you to this point of view.

Source A: Abraham Lincoln – Springfield, IL speech, 6/16/1858

Source B: Stephen Douglas – Reply to Abraham Lincoln at the Freeport debate, 8/27/1858

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