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“The Eternal Struggle”: The Morality of Slavery and its “Ultimate Extinction” in the Seventh Lincoln-Douglas Debate
Transcript of “The Eternal Struggle”: The Morality of Slavery and its “Ultimate Extinction” in the Seventh Lincoln-Douglas Debate
by Kevin Pajor
“The real issue in this controversy-the one pressing upon every mind-is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong. The sentiment that contemplates the institution of slavery in this country as a wrong is the sentiment of the Republican party. It is the sentiment around which all their actions-all their arguments circle-from which all their propositions radiate.”--
Abraham Lincoln, October 13, 1858
What office were they competing for?
Where did the debates take place?
Who was Stephen Douglas?
What issues were discussed at the debates?
What do you know about the Lincoln-Douglas debates?
Answer the following questions in your notebooks
While the Lincoln-Douglas debates are almost unmatched in their fame in American history, it is astonishing that little of Lincoln’s actual oration in those debates have passed into common parlance, with the “house divided” being the obvious exception. Schoolchildren learn the debates often focusing on the comical physical contrast between the two men. As they grow older, they may learn that Douglas was a proponent of popular sovereignty. And yet, the actual meat of the debates themselves seems to be the solely the province of historians, scarcely known to the general public.
This may be because much of the interplay between Douglas and Lincoln in 1858 is best understood with a bit of context for Lincoln’s views of slavery. These can be difficult for modern readers to discern: at first glance, reading Lincoln’s words on slavery throughout the 1850s and into his early presidency seems to shatter prior beliefs about our 16th president as the Great Emancipator. Without the context of the time, Lincoln’s political obligations when speaking on slavery seem to obscure his own plans and personal desires.
Lincoln was, however, fiercely opposed to slavery, and he and the early Republican Party were dedicated to its demise. Lincoln’s seventh and final debate with Stephen Douglas, held in Alton on October 13th of 1858, casts a light on Lincoln and slavery--not only his moral distaste for the institution, which he expresses at length, but also a glance at he and his party’s designs in bringing about its ultimate destruction.
In Alton, at the end of a long series of debates, Lincoln seemed almost exasperated. In a series of rhetorical questions, he laid out the destruction that slavery had wrought across American institutions, pointed out that nearly “every time” the major sectional troubles of the country “sprung from an endeavour to spread this institution.” Slavery, Lincoln claimed, “was the only serious danger that ha[d] threatened our institutions.”
He was frustrated by Douglas’s insistence that slavery should not be the concern of people in the North, considering that history had shown it was a subject that all Americans “care a very great deal about.” Later in his speech, Lincoln advocated for essentially cutting to the chase, and exposing the slavery debate for what it really was: a moral question of right and wrong.
Lincoln’s personal hatred for slavery and its affect on American society is well-documented, as is his distaste for the sort of indifference towards it that Douglas supported.
"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---enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites---causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty..."--Speech at Peoria, October 16, 1854.
Four years earlier, on the "indifference" towards slavery...
As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy
."--"Definition of Democracy," August 1, 1858.
A few months prior to the Alton debate...
His proclamations of hatred for slavery became well-known enough that later in his letter to Horace Greeley he would famously refer to his...
“oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.”--Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862
In Alton, Lincoln chose to present the slavery debate as part of “the eternal struggle” between good and evil. Prophetlike, he predicted that battle “will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent.” In the end, he expressed thanks to Douglas for inadvertently revealing his true colors and showing the people “where the struggle really is.”
So, now we know that Lincoln hated slavery and thought of it as immoral and undemocratic. Return to your sheet of paper:
How do you think he planned to deal with it?
Can you think of anything you see as morally wrong but have to live with?
What might have been standing in his way of ending slavery?
Throughout these debates, Lincoln continually reiterated that he had respect for the fact that slavery was the law in parts of the Union. While Lincoln spoke of his desire for slavery’s “ultimate extinction,” all knew it would be constitutionally difficult, if not impossible to directly interfere with slavery in the Southern states. And yet, Republicans had every intention of bringing about an end to slavery as soon as possible.
If the Constitution stood in the way of the Republicans ending slavery, how did they plan on doing it?
Less than three years after this debate, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln acknowledged (repeating the same language he had used in the first Douglas debate) that he had no intention of “interfering with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists,” and that he had “no lawful right to do so.” Republicans instead planned on leading slavery on a more winding road to its death, in a multi-pronged plan that has come to be known as the “cordon of freedom,” revived by the research of James Oakes.
If slavery couldn't be touched "where it exists," where could Republicans attack it?
Refuse to enforce fugitive slave laws
Abolish slavery in Washington, DC
Stop its expansion into the territories
Altogether, this would surround the slave states with a “cordon of freedom” and lead to the institution’s permanent destruction!
Lincoln was well aware of this goal when he spoke across Illinois in 1858, (when he would voice approval of many of its parts) and certainly when he spoke at his inauguration. His party was dedicated to the end of slavery, even though they were unable to tackle the issue in a more direct manner.
This is the sort of thing that Lincoln referred to in Alton when he said that the Republican party, though it had regard for the “actual existence” of slavery, had a policy of “treating [slavery] as a wrong” and “with looks to its not creating any more danger.” He knew he would be unable, whether as Senator or as President, to directly end slavery in the states where it existed. But he also felt a strong moral duty, along with his party, to do what he could to “make provision that it shall grow no larger.” That was the “cordon of freedom.” That was the means to end slavery’s expansion and eventually bring about its death.
Why does this matter?
The revelation of this commitment to slavery’s end, along with Lincoln’s framing of the question as part of a great battle between right and wrong, is the true legacy of his final debate with Stephen Douglas in October of 1858. This debate offered a crucial look at Lincoln, not just as the candidate for senator, but also the president he would become. It showcased the moral underpinnings of his beliefs as well as providing a glance at his party’s ultimate plan to end slavery. While this debate would not deliver Lincoln the US Senate seat, it helped to establish much of what we have come to recognize as Lincoln’s trademark.
What do you think?
Write a three-paragraph response to the following question:
How has this lesson changed the way you think about Abraham Lincoln, slavery and the Civil War?
A drawing of Alton, IL in 1858
A "word cloud" by Matthew Pinsker representing the most-used words at the Alton debate
Lincoln, Abraham. Definition of Democracy, August 1,1858
Lincoln, Abraham. Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862
Lincoln, Abraham. Seventh Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Alton, Illinois, October 15, 1858.
Lincoln, Abraham. Speech at Peoria, Illinois, 16 October 1854.
From Basler, Roy. P ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols., New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), http://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/.
Oakes, James. The Scorpion's Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.
Oakes, James. "The War of Northern Aggression." Jacobin. Accessed July 7, 2016. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2012/08/the-war-of-northern-aggression/.
Abraham Lincoln audio on "Letter to Horace Greeley" and "Seventh Douglas Debate" performed by Todd Wronski in September 2013. By the House Divided Project. Available at https://soundcloud.com/house-divided-project
A report on the Alton debate in the
Chicago Press and Tribune,
October 18, 1858
Clipping from the
Alton Daily Whig
, October 1858
Central area of Alton, IL two years after the debate, in 1860
Antislavery Republicans believed that once slavery was surrounded by the "cordon of freedom," it would have no choice but to sting itself to death like a scorpion surrounded by fire.
All of the below are found at the House Divided. http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/view/images
"Abraham Lincoln, 1858." From William Eleroy Curtis, The True Abraham Lincoln. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1903.
Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862. From Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.
“The Alton Debate.” Chicago (IL) Press and Tribune, October 18, 1858. Courtesty of Historical Newspapers.
"Alton, Illinois, 1858." From The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1905.
"Alton, Illinois, 1860, central area, detail." From Land Ownership Maps Collection, Library of Congress.
"The Scorpion's Head," cartoon, May 24, 1862 from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 24, 1862.
"Seventh Lincoln and Douglas Debate, Alton, Illinois, October 15, 1858, word cloud." Created by Matthew Pinsker. House Divided Project, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.
"Stephen Arnold Douglas, 1858,"and
"Last Great Discussion." Alton (IL) Daily Whig, October 1858. From The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, ed. Edwin Earle Sparks. Springfield, IL: The Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, 1908.