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Houses Divided: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Political Landscape of 1858

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Although the seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas have become the most famous part of the 1858 campaign, they were actually an afterthought of the Illinois Republican state committee. Both Lincoln and Douglas took to the campaign trail in July 1858, giving their campaign-opening speeches in Chicago on July 9 and 10. Although voters would not be voting directly for either Lincoln or Douglas, each candidate canvassed Illinois for four months to encourage voters to cast votes for his party’s state legislative candidates, who would eventually elect Illinois’s U.S. Senator. Since Douglas was much more prominent than Lincoln in 1858 and had a larger political machine behind him, Lincoln lagged badly from the beginning. The Republican state committee, chaired by Norman Judd, resorted to challenging Douglas to a series of open-air debates, which would place Lincoln and Douglas on the same platform in seven locations throughout the state. The Republicans hoped the debates would help level the playing field and allow Lincoln to pin Douglas down publicly over a number of inconsistencies in his policies toward the extension of slavery in the territories.

One-on-one debating has a long history in American politics. The most notable debates before 1858 were the great debates in the U.S. Senate between Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne in 1830. There were, however, four unusual features of the Lincoln-Douglas debates:

  1. They were sequential-speech debates, rather than parliamentary- (or Oxford-) style debates, on the model described in nineteenth-century debate manuals, such as James McElligott’s The American Debater (1855). Parliamentary (or Oxford) debating is a formal style of debate in which multiple speakers for the opposing sides of a resolution speak in alternate rotation in affirmative and negative constructive statements, and present rebuttals on the resolution, followed by a vote, or “division of the house.” Classical debate involves alternating affirmative and negative statements, with each statement followed by cross-examination. The present-day “Lincoln-Douglas Debate” format (somewhat like its namesake) pits two debaters in a forty-five-minute exchange, beginning with each reading a prepared statement and each posing questions to the other, followed by rebuttals from each. In 1858, Lincoln and Douglas agreed on a pattern that allowed the opening speaker an hour, followed by the other speaker for an hour and a half, and concluded by the first speaker with a half-hour rebuttal. Lincoln and Douglas would alternate as the lead speaker.
  2. The debates were preoccupied with only one issue—slavery—to the exclusion of other issues.
  3. The speeches were taken down in shorthand by teams of “phonographers” hired by the Chicago Press and Tribune and the Chicago Times, transcribed, published in full, and then distributed by telegraph to national newspapers within three days. In that way, the Illinois Senate race attracted a national audience, which benefited Lincoln (the “unknown”) more than Douglas.
  4. The speaking styles of the two candidates contrasted vividly. Douglas spoke rapidly, in a rolling baritone, full of passionate gesture; Lincoln spoke more slowly, in a high-pitched, twangy tenor, with a minimum of gesture and a constant appeal to logic and persuasion.


  • Are the Lincoln-Douglas debates a good model for political debating?
  • Has the Lincoln-Douglas model been reflected in presidential debates since 1960?
  • Do the speaking styles of Lincoln and Douglas tell us anything about the values of the candidates and their parties?
  • How do the debate performances of Lincoln and Douglas compare to the prescribed patterns of political speech in nineteenth-century debate manuals and public-speaking textbooks?


A. Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon, Jan. 31, 1866, in Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, ed. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis (Urbana, 1998), 184.

B. William H. Herndon to Truman Bartlett, July 19, 1887, in The Hidden Lincoln: From the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon, ed. Emanuel Hertz (New York, 1938), 191–92.

C. “Congressional Eloquence,” North American Review, 52 (Jan. 1841), 109–48.

D. “Of Gesture,” in The Columbian Orator, by Caleb Bingham (Boston, 1832), 19–29.