The Lincoln-Douglas debates can be can be defined as a series of seven debates between incumbent Senator Stephen A. Douglas, as the Democratic Party candidate, and Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln, Republican Party candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinoiw during the 1858 Illinois senatorial campaign, principally concerning the issue of slavery extension into the territories.
Lincoln and Douglas decided to hold one debate in each of the nine congressional districts in Illinois. Both candidates had already spoken in Springfield and Chicago within a day of each other, so they decided that their joint appearances would be held in the remaining seven districts. Each debate lasted 3 hours. The format was that one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute rejoinder. The debates previewed the issues that Lincoln later faced after his victory in the 1860 presidential election. Illinois was a free state, and the main issue discussed in all seven debates was slavery in the United States, particularly its future expansion into new territories.
The slavery extension question had seemingly been settled by the Missouri Compromise nearly 40 years earlier. The Mexican War, however, had added new territories, and the issue flared up again in the 1840s. The Compromise of 1850provided a temporary respite from sectional strife, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—a measure which was sponsored by Douglas—brought the slavery extension issue to the forefront once again. Douglas’s bill in effect repealed the Missouri Compromise by lifting the ban against slavery in territories north of the 36°30′ latitude. In lieu of the ban, Douglas offered popular sovereignty, the doctrine which states that the actual settlers in the territories should decide the fate of slavery in their own land, being the central focus of such settlers, and not Congress.
In 1854,Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois presented a bill destined to be one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in our national history. Supposedly a bill “to organize the Territory of Nebraska,” an area covering the present-day states of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and the Dakotas, contemporaries referred to it as“the Nebraska bill.” Today, we know it as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
By the 1850s, there were pressing demands to structure the western territories. The land acquired from Mexico in 1848, the California Gold Rush of 1849, and the unyielding movement toward westward expansion forced farmers, ranchers, and over-viewers toward the Pacific. The Mississippi River had indeed long served as a highway for the north-south traffic, but the western lands needed a river of steel, not a river of water—denoting a transcontinental railroad in order to link the eastern states to the Pacific. Whic h led to the golden question of: What route would that railroad take?
Stephen Douglas, one of the railway’s chief organizers and supporters, wanted to develop a northern route through Chicago. However, the only problem with this idea is that would take the rail lines through the disorganized territory of Nebraska, which was located north of the 1820 Missouri Compromise line, where slavery was prohibited. Others, mainly slaveholders and allies of, most specifically, favored a southern railroad route, perhaps one that went through the new stateof Texas. Nevertheless, in order to pass his “Nebraska bill,” Douglas needed a compromise.
On January 4, 1854, StephenDouglas introduced a bill designed to maintain common ground. He proposed arranging the extensiveterritory “with or without slavery, as their constitutions may prescribe.”
This policy became known as “popular sovereignty,” and was policy that contradicted the Missouri Compromise, and leaving open even more, the question of slavery. However, despite Douglas’s proposal and efforts to meet northerners and southerners in the middle, even that was not enough to satisfy a group of dominant southern senators led by the state of Missouri’s David Atchison. These senators wanted to explicitly repeal the 1820 line. Douglas viewed the railroad line as the “onward march of civilization,” and thus, he agreed to the southern senators’ demands. Douglas told Atchison, “I will incorporate it into my bill, though I know it will raise a hell of a storm.” From that moment on, the Nebraska bill debate was no longer a discussion about organizing railway lines; it was all about slavery.