The Great Debates of 1858

Abraham Lincoln wrote a challenge to debate and Stephen A. Douglas accepted. The two men would meet on platforms and clash on issues in cities in seven different parts of the state, all Illinois watching, the whole country listening. By the shorthand writing newly invented, reporters would give the country full phonographic verbatim reports, newspapers told their readers.

Then debaters and shorthand reporters dropped south 300 miles (from Freeport to Jonesboro, IL) to a point south of Richmond, Virginia. The Jonesboro crowd numbered about 1,400- most of them rather cool about the great debate. The place was on land wedged between the Slave States of Kentucky and Missouri; several carloads of passengers had come from those states to listen. The Chicago Times noted: The enthusiasm in behalf of Douglas is intense; there is but one purpose, to reelect him to the Senate where he has won for himself and the State such imperishable renown. As to Lincolns remarks, the Louisville Journal noted: Let no one omit to read them. They are searching, scathing, stunning. They belong to what some one has graphically styled the tomahawking species.

Lincoln - Douglas debatTwo men had spoken in Illinois to audiences surpassing any in the past American history in size and in eagerness to hear. Yet they also spoke to the nation. The main points of the debates reached millions of readers. Newspapers in the larger cities printed the reports in full. A book of passion, an almanac of American visions, victories, defeats, a catechism of national thought and hope, were paragraphs of the debates.

A powerful fragment of America breathed in Douglas saying at Quincy: Let each State mind its own business and let its neighbors alone! ... If we will stand by that principle, then Mr. Lincoln will find that this republic can exist forever divided into free and slave states ... Stand by that great principle and we can go on as we have done, increasing in wealth, in population, in power, and in all the elements of greatness, until we shall be the admiration and terror of the world, ... until we make this continent one ocean-bound republic.

Those who wished quiet about the slavery question, and those who didn't, understood Lincolns inquiry: You say it (slavery) is wrong; but don't you constantly ... argue that this is not the right place to oppose it? You say it must not be opposed in the free States, because slavery is not here; it must not be opposed in the slave States, because it is there; it must not be opposed in politics, because that will make a fuss; it must not be opposed in the pulpit, because it is not religion. Then where is the place to oppose it? There is no suitable place to oppose it.

In Springfield, Illinois in June 1858 Lincoln addressed the Republican state convention saying, If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. 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.

Source: Carl Sandburg, The Prairie Years & The War Years: a One Volume Edition, Galahad Books, New York, 1993.

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