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The Battle of the Giants

The admiring friends of Douglas had given him the nickname of “the little giant.” To this he was fairly entitled. Physically he was very little. Intellectually he was a giant. He was in 1858 perhaps the most prominent man in the United States. He was the unquestioned leader of the dominant party. He had been so long in public life that he was familiar with every public question, while upon the burning question of slavery he was the leader.

Lincoln was a giant physically, and it soon became evident that he was no less intellectually. These two men soon were to come together in a series of joint debates. It was manifest that this would be a battle of intellectual giants. No other such debates have ever occurred in the history of the country.

Events led up to this rapidly and with the certainty of fate. In 1854 Lincoln had been candidate for the senate to succeed Shields, but his party had been outwitted and he was compelled to substitute Trumbull. In 1856 he was the logical candidate for governor, but he was of opinion that the cause would be better served permanently by placing an anti-slavery democrat in nomination. This was done and Bissell was elected. Now in 1858 the senatorial term of Douglas was about to expire and a successor would be chosen. Douglas was the candidate of his own party. The republicans turned naturally and spontaneously to Lincoln, for it would be no light task to defeat so strong an opponent.

The republican convention met in Springfield on the 16th of June. Lincoln was by acclamation nominated “as the first and only choice” of the republican party for United States senator. The above time-honored phrase was used sincerely on that occasion. There was great enthusiasm, absolute unanimity.

On the evening of the following day he addressed the convention in a speech which has become historic. His opening words were:

“If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to the slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. ’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 it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.”

This speech came quickly to be known as “the house-divided-against- itself speech.” By that name it is still known. Concluding he said: "Our cause, then, must be entrusted to and conducted by its own undoubted friends, those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work, who do care for the result.... The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail. If we stand firm we shall not fail. Wise counsels may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but sooner or later the victory is sure to come.” This was a strong speech, delivered before an audience of men of unusual ability, delegates who represented all parts of the state. It was in no wise a harangue. It was entirely thoughtful and strictly logical. The effect of it was to intensify the enthusiasm, and to spread it all through the state. It was a speech that Douglas could not ignore, though he might misrepresent it. This he did by raising the charge of sectionalism against his adversary.

About three weeks later, on the 9th of July, Douglas made an elaborate speech in Chicago. Lincoln was in the audience. It was unofficially arranged that he should reply. He did so the following evening. A week later a similar thing occurred in Springfield. Douglas made a speech in the afternoon to which Lincoln replied in the evening. Shortly after this Lincoln wrote Douglas a letter proposing a series of joint discussions, or challenging him to a series of joint debates. Douglas replied in a patronizing and irritating tone, asked for a slight advantage in his own favor, but he accepted the proposal. He did not do it in a very gracious manner, but he did it. They arranged for seven discussions in towns, the locations being scattered fairly over the entire territory of the state.

If Illinois had before been “the cynosure of neighboring eyes,” much more was it so now. Lincoln was by no means the most prominent anti- slavery man, but he was the only man in a position to beard his rival. The proposed debates excited not only the interest of the state and the neighboring states, but from the East and the South all minds were turned to this tournament. It was not a local discussion; it was a national and critical question that was at issue. The interest was no less eager in New York, Washington, and Charleston than in Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and St. Louis.

The two men had been neighbors for many years. They were together members of the legislature, first in Vandalia and then in Springfield. They had frequently met socially in Springfield. Both paid marked attentions to the same young lady. Both had served in Washington City. Douglas was for most of his life an officeholder, so that in one way or another Lincoln would be brought into association with him. But though they met so frequently it is not probable that, before this time, either recognized in the other his supreme antagonist. After the repeal of the Missouri Compromise Lincoln had, as already related, discussed Douglas with great plainness of speech. This had been twice repeated in this year. But these were, comparatively speaking, mere incidents. The great contest was to be in the debates.

In the outset, Douglas had the advantage of prestige. Nothing succeeds like success. Douglas had all his life had nothing but success. He twice had missed the nomination for presidency, but he was still the most formidable man in the senate. He was very popular in his own state. He was everywhere greeted by large crowds, with bands of music and other demonstrations. He always traveled in a special car and often in a special train, which was freely placed at his disposal by the Illinois Central Railway. Lincoln traveled by accommodation train, freight train, or wagon, as best he could. As both the men were everyday speaking independently between the debates, this question of transportation was serious. The inconveniences of travel made a great drain upon the nervous force and the health. One day when the freight train bearing Lincoln was side-tracked to let his rival’s special train roll by, he good-humoredly remarked that Douglas “did not smell any royalty in this car.”

Another fact which gave Douglas the advantage was the friendship and sympathy of Horace Greeley and others, who had much influence with the party of Lincoln. Douglas had broken with Buchanan’s administration on a question relating to Kansas. The iniquity of the powers at Washington went so far that even Douglas rebelled. This led Greeley and others to think that Douglas had in him the making of a good republican if he was only treated with sufficient consideration. Accordingly, all of that influence was bitterly thrown in opposition to Lincoln.

The methods of the two men were as diverse as their bodily appearance. Douglas was a master of what the ancient Greeks would have called "making the worse appear the better reason.” He was able to misstate his antagonist’s position so shrewdly as to deceive the very elect. And with equal skill he could escape from the real meaning of his own statements. Lincoln’s characterization is apt: “Judge Douglas is playing cuttlefish–a small species of fish that has no mode of defending himself when pursued except by throwing out a black fluid which makes the water so dark the enemy cannot see it, and thus it escapes.”

Lincoln’s method was to hold the discussion down to the point at issue with clear and forcible statement. He arraigned the iniquity of slavery as an offense against God. He made the phrase “all men” of the Declaration of Independence include the black as well as the white. Said he: “There is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence–the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.... In the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” He quoted Jefferson’s remark, “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.” Mercilessly he analyzed Douglas’s speeches and exposed his sophistry.

The forensic ability of the two men is suggestively indicated by the remark of a lady who heard them speak, and afterward said: “I can recall only one fact of the debates, that I felt so sorry for Lincoln while Douglas was speaking, and then so sorry for Douglas while Lincoln was speaking.”

These debates occupied seven different evenings of three hours each. The speeches were afterwards published in book form and had a wide circulation. These speeches, numbering twenty-one in all, filled a large volume. It is not the purpose of this chapter to give an outline of the debates, it is only to give a general idea of their result. But out of them came one prominent fact, which so influenced the careers of the two men that it must be briefly recorded. This went by the name of "the Freeport doctrine.”

In the first debate Douglas had asked Lincoln a series of questions. The villainy of these questions was in the innuendo. They began, “I desire to know whether Lincoln stands to-day, as he did in 1854, in favor of,” etc. Douglas then quoted from the platform of a convention which Lincoln had not attended, and with which he had nothing to do. Lincoln denied these insinuations, and said that he had never favored those doctrines; but the trick succeeded, and the impression was made that Douglas had cornered him. The questions, to all intents and purposes, were a forgery. This forgery was quickly exposed by a Chicago paper, and the result was not helpful to Douglas. It was made manifest that he was not conducting the debates in a fair and manly way.

Further than this, the fact that these questions had been asked gave Lincoln, in turn, the right to ask questions of Douglas. This right he used. For the next debate, which was to be at Freeport, he prepared, among others, the following question: “Can the people of a United States territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a state constitution?” If this were answered “No,” it would alienate the citizens of Illinois. If it were answered “Yes,” it would alienate the democrats of the South.

On the way to Freeport he met a number of friends and took counsel of them. When he read question number two, the one above quoted, his friends earnestly and unanimously advised him not to put that question. "If you do,” said they, “you never can be senator.” To which Lincoln replied: “Gentlemen, I am killing larger game. If Douglas answers, he can never be President, and the battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this.”

It is not probable that Lincoln expected to be in 1860 the nominee of the republican party. But he did see the danger of the election of Douglas to the presidency. He was willing to surrender the senatorial election to save the country from a Douglas administration. The sacrifice was made. The prediction proved true. Lincoln lost the senatorship, Douglas lost the presidency.

The popular verdict, as shown in the election, was in favor of Lincoln. The republicans polled 125,430 votes; the Douglas democrats, 121,609, and the Buchanan democrats, 5,071. But the apportionment of the legislative districts was such that Douglas had a majority on the joint ballot of the legislature. He received 54 votes to 46 for Lincoln. This secured his reelection to the senate.

The popular verdict outside the state of Illinois was in favor of Lincoln. The republican party circulated the volume containing the full report of the speeches. It does not appear that the democrats did so. This forces the conclusion that the intellectual and moral victory was on the side of Lincoln.

There is a pathetic sequel to this. The campaign had been very arduous on Lincoln. Douglas had made 130 speeches in 100 days, not counting Sundays. Lincoln had made probably about the same number. These were not brief addresses from a railway car, but fully elaborated speeches. The labors commenced early in July and continued through the heat of the summer. With Lincoln the inadequate means of travel added to the draft upon his strength. At the end of all came the triumphant election of his rival. Add to this the fact that the next day he received a letter from the republican committee saying that their funds would not meet the bills, and asking for an additional contribution. The rest is best told in Lincoln’s own words:

“Yours of the 15th is just received. I wrote you the same day. As to the pecuniary matter, I am willing to pay according to my ability, but I am the poorest hand living to get others to pay. I have been on expense so long without earning anything that I am absolutely without money now for even household purposes. Still, if you can put up $250 for me towards discharging the debt of the committee, I will allow it when you and I settle the private matter between us. This, with what I have already paid, and with an outstanding note of mine, will exceed my subscription of $500. This, too, is exclusive of my ordinary expenses during the campaign, all which, being added to my loss of time and business, bears pretty heavily on one no better off in world’s goods than I; but as I had the post of honor, it is not for me to be over- nice. You are feeling badly–’And this, too, shall pass away.’ Never fear.”