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How The Lincoln-Douglas debates came to be, and why they are relevant in today's political world.

The series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were the first political, electoral debates held in the United States. The two men were in competition for a senate seat in the state if Illinois. The year was 1858.

historical building.


Abraham Lincoln, a member of the newly formed Republican Party, was controversially following Stephen Douglas, a leading voice in a regionally divided Democratic Party, at political events and making grand 'rebuttals' to Stephen's speeches, which often resulted in tension between the two men as Lincoln presented much more formulated and prepared speeches. The debates emerged as an opportunity for Lincoln and Douglas to influence the future trajectory of the party. However, at play are also the political parties at the time: the Democrats and the newly formed Republicans. They, the parties, are important because they are what ultimately forced the debates as they had gradually gained control over the campaigns from the candidates to the point of frustration. Lincoln and Douglas were breaking the 'norm' when they ran their mostly independent campaigns. In the this case independent refers to freedom from outside sources and inter-party politics.


What is known known as "The Great Debates" was a series of seven debates between Lincoln And Douglas. Lincoln represented the Republicans and Douglas the Democrats. They were vying for an open senate seat in the State of Illinois. At the time however, senators were elected by state representatives, not the general electorate. Therefore, they were encouraging the general public to influence their respective representative.Even though Illinois was a free state, the primary topic of concern, interestingly was slavery. This mirrored what was growing as an issue throughout the country at the time. Parties were trying to bridge the gap between regional and national politics.


The first debate took place on August 21 with the final debate wrapping up on October 15. This was a period of a little over two months. On average a debate was held approximately seven days. The reason for such a long period was because of the size of the state: Illinois is a very large state. Also, at the time people still traveled via horse and carriage, which was a slow and tedious form of travel. Also, of note are the debates themselves, they lasted for three hours. This is much longer that contemporary debates. A large amount of time was committed to each question. Responses were allotted thirty minutes compared to just minutes today.


Map of Lincoln Douglas debates

The debates were held in the following cities: Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton, all residing in Illinois. In regards to the physical locations of he debates it was nothing fancy. In fact the debates took place outside, in grassy fields, much like the banner image at the top of the page. The main reason for this was to make them accessible for many voters and nonvoters alike to attend.


The most important question is why the debates where held. Several components led to the debates. First and foremost both candidates wanted to share there opinions and believed that this was an easy way to do so. Secondly Lincoln had been following Douglas on the Campaign trail and presenting his own views after Douglas moved onto his frustration, this helped eliminate the tension between the two men from when Lincoln trailed around Douglas.  Lastly: freedom. At this point in history, campaigns were largely engineered by parties and this was an attempt by the candidates to control their own campaign, and make a name for themselves at the same time.


C-SPAN has a great reenactment of the debates. click here to view it.

CSPAN link