Everyone on that hot, dusty August afternoon in 1858 in the square at Ottawa, Illinois, knew who one of the men on the platform was. That man was Stephen Arnold Douglas, the senior U.S. senator from Illinois whose seat was up for re-election that year. Although Douglas stood only five feet, four inches tall, his paunchy torso, leonine mane of black hair, and energetic mannerisms marked him as the man who had become the most powerful figure in the nation’s senior chamber. Douglas had made his name as the savior of the great Compromise of 1850, and he had strong-armed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill through Congress in 1854, opening the western prairies to settlement and organization as federal territories. He was the coming man of American politics, and a successful re-election now would guarantee him the presidency in 1860.
The other man on the platform could be seen more easily, but there was some question whether the seeing was worthwhile. Abraham Lincoln stood a foot taller than Douglas, but his height was all scrawniness and uncoordination, his voice reedy and unmusical. He was well-known among his fellow lawyers in central Illinois, and a decade before he had served an uneventful term in Congress. But he was a Republican in a Democratic state, and the consensus was that Lincoln had been put up to challenge Douglas because no other Illinois Republican wanted to sacrifice himself.
One hundred and sixty years later, we know how wrongheaded that consensus was. The platform at Ottawa became the first of Lincoln’s stepping-stones to greatness. He and Douglas had agreed to stage seven open-air debates between August and October of 1858, beginning in Ottawa, and winding through Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton. By the end, Douglas was a coughing, alcoholic wreck, while Lincoln was going from strength to strength. Newspapers across the country that had at first covered the debates to focus on Douglas had, by election day, fixed the entire nation’s attention on Lincoln. Two years later he would be the Republican candidate for the presidency—which he would win, running against Stephen A. Douglas.
The irony of the Lincoln-Douglas debates is that, although Lincoln is universally understood to have won the great debates of 1858 on sheer eloquence, there is some question whether the smiling shade of Stephen A. Douglas could have claimed to have won a larger argument. The immediate issue boiled down to one point, and that was slavery. Looming behind that issue was a larger question about the nature of democratic politics itself, and on that question Douglas may have been the long-term winner.
This was not because Lincoln and Douglas were actually opposed when it came to slavery. Neither man was a slave owner; neither of them had a good word to say about slavery itself. But Douglas was convinced that the United States would never be able to realize its “manifest destiny” as a two-ocean colossus until the economic potential of the West could be opened. And that would never happen as long as the organization of the West into federal territories, and then states, was governed by the Compromise of 1820. That compromise (the so-called “Missouri Compromise”) had banned slavery from most of the old Louisiana Purchase. Southern slaveholders who had agreed to the Compromise in 1820 when the West was still a desert now refused to countenance the organization of the old Purchase territories unless they were given a piece of the action there, with their slaves.
To satisfy them, Douglas engineered passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854, which allowed the organization of the Purchase on the basis of what he called “popular sovereignty.” Congress, according to “popular sovereignty,” would allow settler majorities in the territories to decide for themselves whether to legalize the introduction of slaves. It was a perfectly democratic formula. It was also a perfectly amoral formula, since what was being voted upon was, in fact, an outrage on every natural right Americans were supposed to hold dear. But moral outrage was not Douglas’s concern. “If Kansas wants a slave-State constitution, she has a right to it,” Douglas declared. “I care not whether it is voted down or voted up”—so long as the voting was done properly.
For Lincoln, this exactly missed the point about democracy. “No man believed more than I in the principle of self-government,” Lincoln insisted, and “that it lies at the bottom of all my ideas of just government, from beginning to end.” But not every question in the life of a republic was capable of being settled by majority votes. There were certain non-negotiables, beginning with the natural rights spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, which were not up for determination or alteration by popular sovereignty.
Douglas’s moral myopia was typical of the Jacksonian Democrats of his day, who resisted intrusion of moral or religious questions into public affairs. Douglas preferred a smear campaign, in which Lincoln was tarred as a promoter of racial equality—which, in nineteenth-century Illinois, was a potent smear. “I do not regard the negro as my equal,” Douglas exclaimed in the opening debate at Ottawa. Hence, he argued, when Lincoln talked about black and white both possessing the natural rights described in the Declaration of Independence, he set the stage for blacks “to come into the State and . . . vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights.”
These were serious accusations in front of all-white audiences that paraded placards reading This Country Was Made for White Men. Lincoln’s counselors forced him to temporize on the question of black civil rights. But this also allowed him to draw a bright line between civil rights, which were matters of community negotiation, and natural rights, which were not. “There is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence,” Lincoln replied, and that certainly included “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” On those terms, whatever else Douglas might think of the black man, “in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”
Through the course of the seven debates, Lincoln hammered Douglas on the immorality of slavery and the amorality of popular sovereignty until, at the final debate at Alton, Lincoln frankly compared Douglas’s indifference toward slavery to tyranny. “No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
The Lincoln-Douglas debates are famous for Lincoln’s eloquence and for the boost they gave him toward national political success. But there is some question as to whether, in modern America, it is Stephen A. Douglas who has prevailed in the shaping of our political philosophy. Michael Sandel, in Democracy’s Discontent (1996), described Douglas as the embodiment of a “procedural republic,” in which moral and religious arguments are excluded from the public square in order to dampen conflict and achieve political peace. The result, Sandel warned, is a political order too morally feeble to recognize evil for what it is, whether internally or as an external threat. Provided that a majority—a popular majority, a congressional majority, a judicial majority—recognizes as a civil right any personal preference, the procedural republic has no power to interfere, much less to condemn. A woman’s “right to choose” is a contemporary instance, though perhaps Sandel wouldn’t see it as such.
The purpose of democracy, as Douglas understood it, is to be an end in itself, and whatever a democratic majority decides to sanction must stand as law. (Or, as Justice Holmes put it: “If my fellow citizens want to go to hell I will help them. It’s my job.”) Lincoln, however, understood democracy as a means—a good, natural and just means—but only a means toward helping a republic achieve the good that is embodied in natural law.
It is Douglas’s procedural republic, and not Lincoln’s moral one, which has prevailed in our times. Perhaps this is why, today, we may say that the national monument to Abraham Lincoln stands at one end of the National Mall, but the monument to Stephen A. Douglas stands at the other.
Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College.