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by Ralph Burr, instructor in political science


Barrack Obama is the second U.S. president from Illinois. The first was Abraham Lincoln, who was elected in 1860 and who was assassinated in 1865, shortly after his reelection. Obama has said that he is a great admirer of Lincoln, and that he fashioned his political persona and election campaign after him. As Lincoln is known to the world as The Great Emancipator, it is certainly appropriate that Obama, the first African-American president, should be inaugurated in the same year that the world celebrates the Feb. 12 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.
The following article reviews the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates from the 1858 senatorial race in Illinois, a campaign focused almost exclusively on the issue of slavery. It seems appropriate at this time to recall those historic debates; they presaged the Civil War, which finally removed the scourge of slavery from America and ultimately set the stage for the election of our first black president.
A little more than 150 years ago, one of the most important events in American political history was drawing to a close in Illinois: Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in the final of their seven debates in a remarkable race for the U.S. Senate. In the small Mississippi River town of Alton, they met on Oct. 15, the last time they would face each other before voting took place on Nov. 2.
It was not a presidential election year, but it was a preview of the 1860 election, in which the same two men would meet each other again in a contest for the White House.
Lincoln genuinely hated slavery: “I hate it,” he said, “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.” Lincoln’s words could apply today, as they raise images of our invasion and occupation of Iraq, a sovereign nation against whom we had no real evidence of terrorism, with the resulting cost in lives and resources, and the immense loss of American prestige around the world.
In contrast, Douglas’ supported popular sovereignty: Let the people in the territory decide by popular vote without reference to any moral judgment about slavery. He saw popular sovereignty as the very essence of democracy: Let the people speak through the vote, free of either side’s moral predilections. It was strictly a procedural thing with him, a view he had inherited from Jacksonian democracy’s first article of faith, that the voice of the people was the ultimate and only rule that democracy had to follow. It had an appealing, almost undeniable ring to it. What could be fairer, more democratic, than making such a decision simply by popular vote?
Of course, President George W. Bush was elected in direct contravention of this notion when, in the 2000 elections, Al Gore won more than half a million more popular votes but Bush won four more electoral votes.
The details suggest even more parallels between then and now. Douglas was a distinguished sitting senator seeking re-election; Lincoln was a prairie lawyer whose only political experience was one unremarkable term in the U.S. House of Representatives several years earlier. Ordinarily, an off-year congressional election wouldn’t attract much attention, but it quickly became apparent that not only Illinois but the entire country was witnessing a trial run for the coming presidential election and a precursor of the Civil War which began in 1861.
At the time of the debates, each state’s senators were elected by the legislatures of the state, so the object of the 1858 election was to elect an Illinois legislature dominated by either Democrats, who would be expected to re-elect Douglas, or by Republicans, who would undoubtedly elect Lincoln.
The two men, both successful lawyers, had known each other for more than 22 years. Douglas was a Democrat, a party leader, while Lincoln was a lesser known former Whig who had recently helped found the new anti-slavery Republican Party. Lincoln had, in fact, been nominated to run against Douglas at the Illinois Republican Party’s convention in June of 1858, in response to which he gave his famous “House Divided” acceptance speech, in which he prophesied that “this government cannot endure, permanently, half-slave and half-free.”
Horace Greeley, the famous editor of the New York Tribune, first broached the idea of a face-to-face meeting between the two candidates. Lincoln made the proposal to Douglas, who was initially reluctant to give his lesser known opponent any opportunity for greater exposure and status but who finally, agreed to seven debates in seven locations of his choosing, running from mid-August to mid-October.
The two men had already been sparring for four years over slavery, particularly regarding its extension into new western territories, Kansas and Nebraska, that were soon to become states. The overriding issue was: Would they be admitted to the Union as slave states or free states?
Lincoln was often called a racist, because he supported Illinois’ ambiguity on slavery. While Illinois was a free state, it had long standing “Black Laws”: Negroes could not vote, join the state militia, testify against a white person in court, serve on a jury, or marry a white person. While Lincoln was personally and privately conflicted about these popular laws, he did not speak openly in opposition to them, partly from conviction and partly from political necessity. Nevertheless, he did write these lines: “…there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Note the reference to “natural rights” and to the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln could not resort to the Constitution to fight slavery, because it was silent on the issue; indeed, the 1787 constitutional convention nearly collapsed over it, so that the northern delegates had to yield to the southerners on the issue in order to keep them from walking out. So he turned to Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece, and to its Enlightenment notion of human equality among all men and all races. There he found “unalienable Rights” that were bestowed on all men by their Creator—that is, rights that were independent of man-made law, even of such magnificent man-made law as the U.S. Constitution.
Lincoln, like most men of his time, saw great natural differences between the races in intellect, education, civilization, social maturation, and business and political acumen. Nevertheless, he insisted that: “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.”
In the debates, Douglas taunted Lincoln relentlessly over this concept of what we might call “qualified equality.” He got a lot of political mileage out of it, even claiming that Lincoln favored political and social integration of the races. Lincoln countered the blatant race baiting by such memorable statements as, “I do not understand that because I do not want a Negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.”
The debates had two significant results for Lincoln and the nation: they introduced Lincoln, who had no political visibility beyond the horizons of Illinois, to the front ranks of national politics, and they became the basis for the historic invitation he received to come to New York City in January, 1860, to deliver his famous Cooper Union Address. The dramatic speech was his most articulate argument yet against Douglas’ notion of popular sovereignty and his attempt to limit federal power to regulate the spread of slavery to the territories and new states. The address was widely reported in the press and reprinted in pamphlet form throughout the North. It galvanized support for Lincoln and contributed greatly to his gaining the Republican Party’s presidential nomination several months later, and his election to the presidency in November.
Here we can see an interesting parallel with Barrack Obama’s political rise. Like Lincoln, he was little known outside Illinois. His first national exposure occurred at the 2004 Democratic convention where Senator John Kerry gave him the opportunity to deliver what turned out to be a stirring, memorable speech. But it was the primary election campaign of 2008, in his race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, that brought him forcefully to the whole country’s attention. That primary campaign was, in effect, a months-long “debate” between them that ultimately earned him the nomination over his much better known and highly favored rival.
The importance of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates is not just historical, then, but it also not just localized in the conflicts over slavery and racism or in the parallels of political campaigning. It lies in the substance of the ideas that were expressed in them. The ostensible issue was slavery, but the essence of the argument went even deeper. These men were addressing the very meaning of the American experiment in democracy, for they did, indeed, have two distinctly different visions of what democracy meant.
Despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution is designed to protect minorities, Douglas’ notion of democracy entitled majorities to decide all issues purely on the basis of their voting power, without respect to theories of right or wrong, and without regard to the rights of minorities. By contrast, Lincoln thought of politics as a moral pursuit, and he saw democracy as more than just a brazen exercise of raw political power. He was not a moral absolutist, and he did not doubt that popular majorities were the essence of free government, but he felt that there were certain moral lines that even majorities could not cross, certain transcendent and foundational truths which no vote could repeal: “self-evident truths,” as Jefferson described them in the Declaration of Independence. He knew that majorities can become tyrannical, anti-democratic, and, not content merely to defeat minorities, often proceeded to destroy them—as we see happening so often, today, in the world around us.
It’s almost as though Lincoln was saying, “No one has the right to do wrong!” Lincoln transformed the debates into a moral reply to Douglas’ emphasis on democratic “processes” such as voting. He saw the issue as one that pitted principle against mere procedure.
Lincoln was complex, his sense of equality compromised perhaps by the times in which he lived. He recognized the Negro’s undeniable natural rights as creatures of God, but he also argued that there were civil rights that he could, indeed, be denied by the process of politics. Nonetheless, he believed slavery was a moral wrong that was not subject to political whim.
He believed it needed to be tolerated (though not expanded), but only because it would be less disruptive to the country to let it die a natural death, which he was sure would happen eventually, than to kill it outright, which he was equally sure could be done only by war.
While Douglas argued that moral absolutes had no place in the development of public policy, Lincoln felt that public policy could not ignore morality any more than the individual citizen of any civilized community could ignore it. Lincoln lost that election.
The Democrats carried both houses of the Illinois legislature and re-elected Douglas to the Senate. But the results were close. Paradoxically, Republican candidates actually received more popular votes than did Democratic candidates, 190,468 to 166,374. Nevertheless, because of the weighted redistricting enacted two years earlier by the Democratic-controlled legislature, more Democrats than Republicans went to Springfield in January, 54 to 46; and in a strict party line vote of those exact numbers, they sent Douglas back to Washington.
The great irony in this result was actually lost on the candidate whose gospel was “popular sovereignty”; he was re-elected in spite of a popular vote that he had actually lost! And when an associate in Springfield wired Douglas in Philadelphia of his victory in the Illinois legislature, “The Little Giant” wired back, “Let the voice of the people rule,” apparently oblivious to his own hypocrisy.
Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, in 1896, reminded the country of his father’s commitment to morality as a principle of governing, and his words are still appropriate today: “Now, as then, there can be but one supreme issue, that between right and wrong. In our country there are no ruling classes. The right to direct public affairs according to his might and influence and conscience belongs to the humblest as well as to the greatest…..But it is times of danger, critical moments, which bring into action the high moral quality of the citizenship of America. The people are always true. They are always right, and I have an abiding faith they will remain so.”
Ralph Burr is an HPU adjunct instructor in political science and constitutional law. He practiced law in Chicago, was active in Illinois politics, and retired from 30 years of federal service in Washington, D.C., including five years in the Executive Office of the President.




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