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On August 21, 1858, the first of seven prominent debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas took place

August 21, 2025

On August 21, 1858, the first of seven prominent debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas took place in Ottawa, Illinois.

Though the two men were sparring for a seat as an Illinois’ senator, the debates (and future president Abraham Lincoln) gained national attention for their arguments for and against slavery. The debates examined some of the most important issues in American history: the institution of slavery, the founding, and the Declaration of Independence.

The debates keyed in on the public’s growing concerns over the expansion of slavery. A staunch Democrat who enjoyed national fame, the incumbent Senator Douglas espoused the doctrine of “popular sovereignty.” In other words, he believed that the people of newly-forming states should vote on slavery’s legality there. This view had been written into law with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act four years prior.

Lincoln, however, saw popular sovereignty (and hence the Kansas-Nebraska Act) as a recipe for disaster. He railed against the Act because it repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, an important barrier to the spread of slavery north the 36º 30’ parallel line. He appealed to the great founding principles of liberty and equality while arguing against the spread of slavery.

Did you know? Lincoln ultimately lost the Senate election. Despite this momentary failure, the debates had placed him on the national stage in preparation for
much larger tasks ahead: becoming president, guiding the country through a civil war, and putting an end to slavery.

 

 

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas

-Written by Anna Zemaitaitis, Communications and Design Officer

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August 21, 2025
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