Lincoln Declares Slavery a Moral Wrong in the Sixth Lincoln-Douglas Debate

It was, wrote Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer of the Quincy Debate between U.S. Senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, “the nastiest of the campaign.” Lincoln advisors had told him he had been too defensive, too easy, on the former Quincyan in the first five debates. Only Quincy and Alton remained for Lincoln to hit Douglas hard..

Lincoln charged that Douglas’s actions, when considered with the recent Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, were not only advancing the extension of slavery into the territories but into the states, as well. As he had done in earlier debates, Douglas accused Lincoln of tailoring his view of slavery for the audience they addressed. For three hours, the two men traded shots in oratorical combat.

In John’s Square (now Washington Park), a crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 gathered to hear the debate. Lincoln again declared that slavery was a moral wrong that should not be spread. “We [the Republican Party] also oppose it as an evil so far as it seeks to spread itself. We insist on the policy that shall restrict it to its present limits.” Republicans, said Lincoln, would attack slavery only where the Constitution permitted, presumably the territories. Douglas countered with an explanation of why “I will not argue the question whether slavery is right or wrong. I tell you why I will not do it. I hold that under the Constitution of the United States, each State of this Union has a right to do as it pleases on the subject of slavery.”

LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES, seven joint debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas during the 1858 senatorial election campaign in Illinois. The debates marked the culmination of a political rivalry that had its origin twenty-five years before, when both were aspiring politicians in the Illinois legislature. Their careers had followed divergent tracks in the political culture of nineteenth-century America—Lincoln, the Henry Clay Whig espousing a broad program of national centralization and authority and distrustful of the new mass democracy, and Douglas, the Andrew Jackson Democrat standing for local self-government and states' rights, with an abiding faith in the popular will. By 1858, both had become deeply involved in the sectional conflict between the slave and free states over the status of slavery in the creation of western territories and the admission of new states. Douglas, seeking reelection to a third term in the U.S. Senate, had fifteen years of national experience and notoriety behind him and was widely known for his role in the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and his authorship of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Lincoln, a spokesman for the new antislavery Republican Party, whose experience save for one term in the House of Representatives had been limited to several terms in the Illinois legislature, was virtually unknown outside the boundaries of the state.