The “great debates” were a series of public debates between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. In 1858 Douglas, an Illinois Democrat, was running for re-election to the US Senate. Lincoln, a Republican, challenged him. The two held a series of seven debates which focused on the issue of slavery.
In the 1850s, Americans were at loggerheads over the idea of slavery and, especially, over the question of whether slavery would be permitted in the newly added territories. The recent Mexican War had added new territories to the country, which had brought the issue to the forefront. Frederick Douglas came down squarely on the side of expanding slavery into the new territories. His Kansas-Nebraska Act, introduced in 1854, had ended the ban on slavery in the northern territories of the United States. Douglas proposed local rule, or “popular sovereignty,” which would allow the settlers in each territory to decide whether they wanted to allow slavery.
Lincoln, for his part, was a newly minted abolitionist who was looking to burnish his anti-slavery credentials. His debates with Douglas were a chance to get nation-wide attention and position himself as a rising star in the Republican party. By all accounts, people at the time realized that the Lincoln-Douglas debates would be watched and remembered for a long time. As Lincoln said, the issues would be discussed long after “these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent.” A newspaper at the time wrote, “The battle of the Union is to be fought in Illinois.”
During the fifth of the seven debates, Douglas defended the institution of slavery by arguing that the founding fathers never intended the Declaration of Independence apply to everyone. In Douglas’ view, the founding fathers were very intentional about setting up two tracks. When they talked about rights, Douglas argued,
“They referred to white men, to men of European birth and European descent, when they declared the equality of all men. I see a gentleman there in the crowd shaking his head. Let me remind him that when Thomas Jefferson wrote that document, he was the owner, and so continued until his death, of a large number of slaves.” Douglas went on to reason that by arguing for equal rights for slaves, the abolitionists were calling out the founding fathers as hypocrites: “It must be borne in mind that when that Declaration was put forth, every one of the thirteen Colonies were slaveholding Colonies, and every man who signed that instrument represented a slave-holding constituency. Recollect, also, that no one of them emancipated his slaves, much less put them on an equality with himself, after he signed the Declaration.”
Lincoln responded by framing slavery as a moral issue, rather than a question of logic. He argued that once slavery was acknowledged as a moral wrong, it would be impossible to look the other way. He went on:
Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.