Stephen A. Douglas, the “Little Giant,” died in Chicago today. Were it not for the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, during which Abraham Lincoln contested Douglas for an Illinois Senate seat, Mr. Lincoln would not have captured the Republican nomination in 1860.
Although Mr. Lincoln lost the election to the Senate, his speeches made an indelible impression on his audiences. In spite of his physical shortcomings—his homeliness, as well as his high, reedy speaking voice, and a tendency to make ungainly gestures such as lifting both long arms to the heavens—Mr. Lincoln was an effective elocutionist in Illinois. It is known that at times, reporters were so entranced by his speeches that they failed to record them. At an early state convention of the Republican Party, Mr. Lincoln gave what may have been his greatest speech, yet no one knows what he said. All the reporters put down their pens to listen to him. One of the few people who wrote anything down about this speech had only this to say: when it was finished, “the audience rose from their chairs and with pale faces and quivering lips pressed unconsciously toward him.”
Mr. Lincoln is not a Sophist; not someone merely skilled in the art of rhetoric. The editor of an influential paper in Peoria said: “Beyond and above all skill was the overwhelming conviction imposed upon the audience that the speaker himself was charged with an irresistible and inspiring duty to his fellow men.”
During the seven debates between them, Douglas distinguished himself from Lincoln on racial grounds. Douglas stated that he believed this government was “made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men.” Douglas did not believe that the Declaration of Independence applied to black men.
Not so, Mr. Lincoln countered. Lincoln said that not only the Declaration but his “ancient faith” taught him that all men were created equal. The Declaration, Lincoln said, was a universal document, a “standard maxim for a free society.” It should be looked to, labored for, and approximated, even if people cannot attain to it perfectly. It should be “constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
The ideals of America are significant for all of humanity, Mr. Lincoln believes. The ideals put forth in the Declaration are what he calls “the central idea” of America herself.
Another result of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was Lincoln’s succinct and honest formulation of the issues facing the country. When he was chosen by the Republicans as their candidate to run against Douglas for the Senate seat, Lincoln became one of the first men to dare to say it: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this Government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall. But I do expect that it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
His words were not particularly welcomed at the time. Although one friend declared the speech “will make you president” another said it was a “damned fool utterance.” Lincoln purportedly said, “If it is decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go down linked to the truth—let me die in the advocacy of what is just and right.”
Although President Lincoln bristled against Mr. Douglas for his indifference to the spread of slavery, an institution Mr. Lincoln considers a “monstrous injustice,” he did employ him in these last few months since Fort Sumter in touring the border states. Mr. Lincoln asked Mr. Douglas to use his fame to enjoin them to stay loyal to the Union. Secessionists pelted Mr. Douglas with eggs and taunted him, and he returned home exhausted, exhorting his sons with his dying words to obey the laws of the land and to stay loyal to the Constitution.