How Stephen Douglas Won the Senatorial Contest of 1858


By Gary W. GallagherUniversity of Virginia

Stephen Douglas was up for reelection in 1858. At five feet, four inches tall, Douglas was a very unimposing man physically. He was sort of pear-shaped and short, but a very powerful man in terms of his influence politically in the United States. He was a capable lawyer and politician who had won the nickname “The Little Giant” because of his successes in the courtroom and in Congress.

A 1958 American Civil War commemorative issue
A powerful politician and lawyer, Stephen Douglas rivaled against Abraham Lincoln in the Senatorial Contest of 1858. (Image: U.S. Government, Post Office Department/Public domain)

Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln

Douglas was the most famous and most popular Democratic politician in the nation. He had worked his way up from very modest beginnings. He had enormous ambition, and he had enormous talent. 

He needed support in the North and the South, so it was a very delicate balance for him in this contest against Abraham Lincoln, to try to say things that wouldn’t alienate a major constituency in the North and South. 

His opponent, Abraham Lincoln, was another successful lawyer and part-time politician in Illinois. Lincoln was not quite 50 years old. He had established a reputation as a very crafty lawyer in the courtroom, and he earned a very comfortable living. 

His national political experience had consisted of just one term in the United States House of Representatives. He had opposed the Mexican War as a member of the House back in the mid-1840s.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Douglas–Lincoln Debates

The two met in a series of debates across Illinois that received wide coverage throughout the nation, and eventually propelled Lincoln into the top rungs of the Republican Party. All around the nation, newspapers took notice of this contest because of Douglas’s prominence, and because the papers anticipated that the candidates would deal with issues that were of national import, the extension of slavery into the territories being the most obvious. 

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln in 1958
Unlike Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln believed that a moral stand against slavery was essential. (Image: Abraham Byers/Public domain)

Lincoln, in one of his most famous phrases, said: “The nation was in the midst of a great struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of slavery. A house divided against itself cannot stand,” borrowing from the Bible and Jesus’s comments in the Gospel of Mark. “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free,” said Lincoln. “It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Lincoln’s Argument

It was clear, argued Lincoln, that events like Kansas proved the existence of a slave conspiracy to take control of the nation’s destiny. “The spread of slavery had to be stopped now,” he said, “and the institution itself had to be placed on a course of,” as he put it, “ultimate extinction.” 

“Not ended at once everywhere,” he said, “but stopped from growing so that eventually it would wither and die. It was necessary,” argued Lincoln, “to take a moral stand against slavery,” and that is what Stephen A. Douglas refused to do. 

Douglas’s Stand on Slavery

If everyone refused to condemn slavery as an evil, as Douglas did, Lincoln predicted that slavery would end up everywhere in the United States. Well, Douglas didn’t regard the question of slavery in the territories as a moral one. He personally disliked the institution, he said, but whether to allow it or not in the territory should remain a local decision, popular sovereignty. 

That sent a signal to the South. He said that Lincoln’s talk of placing slavery on the road to ultimate extinction made him an abolitionist and threatened the Union. “Why couldn’t the nation continue half-slave and half-free?” asked Douglas. It had been half-slave and half-free for decades, why couldn’t it just remain that way?

A Debate on Equality of Races

Douglas also said that Lincoln wanted equality between the races. Now, that’s a very powerful accusation, because Illinois was intensely racist at this time, and to accuse Lincoln of that, Douglas understood, would hurt Lincoln with many of the voters in Illinois if Lincoln didn’t deny it.

Lincoln answered that he wasn’t an abolitionist, that he would respect slavery in the South as constitutional, though morally wrong, but he said Congress should have the power to bar it from the territories. He also said that he believed that African Americans were equal to whites in terms of their right to enjoy what the Declaration of Independence had guaranteed. Lincoln said, “He,” the black man, “is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”

Well, Douglas won the election by a slim margin, but the contest had much wider consequences. It drove the South even further away from Douglas. One of the most important senatorial contests in American history was thus played out in Illinois in 1858.

Common Questions about How Stephen Douglas Won the Senatorial Contest of 1858

Q: Why was accusing Lincoln of seeking equality between races powerful?

With Illinois being deeply racist at the time, Stephen Douglas knew that accusing his opponent of being an abolitionist would hurt Lincoln with many of the voters in Illinois if Lincoln didn’t explicitly deny it.

Q: What did Lincoln say about African Americans’ rights?

Although he didn’t say he wanted races to be equal, Lincoln remarked that all African Americans must be given “every natural right enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, as he thought the black man, is his equal, as well as the equal of Judge Douglas and every other man.

Q: What were the consequences of the Senatorial Contest in 1858?

Stephen Douglas disliked the institution as he said, but the way he wanted to leave slavery as a local decision, which ultimately drove the South further away from him.

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