Political Career Before Presidency

Debates on the Kansas-Nebraska Act

What was the Kansas-Nebraska Act?

In 1854 Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas proposed to organize governments on territory that belonged to the Louisiana Purchase, Kansas and Nebraska. These new territories would be open to decide on the inclusion or exclusion of slavery by popular sovereignty. The Kansas-Nebraska Act nullified the 1820 Missouri Compromise which served as a limitation on the spread of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln committed himself to build a coalition against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He enlisted Democrats critical of Douglas’ act.


Lincoln and Douglas Debates

In the hall of the House of Representatives in the State Capitol, Lincoln and Douglas met on October 3, 1854 to debate and exchange pros and cons of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The audience was described as intelligent and attentive. Lincoln’s goal was to make the distinction between slavery in existing states, a right guaranteed under the constitution, and the expansion of it, an unconstitutional move. He carefully studied the national history concerning the expansion of slavery. He noted that from the 1789 Northwest ordinance, to the 1820 Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, all of which had recognized the right of Congress to exclude slavery from new territories. He claimed that the latest territories included in the Union, Minnesota and Iowa, were organized within the restriction of the Missouri Compromise and that there was no need this time to repeal it.

He disputed Stephen Douglas’ argument that slavery would not expand into new territories as their populations might or might not vote for it. However, the slavery sentiment in Kansas was flourishing.

Stephen Douglas argued that Americans had the right to self government and that restriction of slavery had to be removed so that residents could decide on their own. This argument was strongly refuted by Lincoln. He centered his argument on the question of “whether the negro is not or is a man”. Lincoln argued against Stephen Douglas’s claim who viewed the African-American  not as  human but as a piece of property. As a result of this view Douglas did not consider it a moral dilemma enslaving and limiting the freedom of a human being. Lincoln asserted that the Declaration of Independence was the core of American freedom based on the fact that all men are created equal.

Lincoln addressed the slavery issue with a tone of moral outrage that impressed his audience. He denounced Douglas’ claim that the Founding Fathers permitted self-government in the new territory as heresy. He added that American slavery should be seen in world perspective; America should be the example of human freedom based on the success of its Union.

Abraham Lincoln’s address was remarkable, for nearly 3 hours he refuted Douglas’ claims and made an impression on the audience. Douglas offered a rebuttal that lasted nearly 2 hours.

The pair met again at Peoria on October 16. His speech was essentially the same as in the Springfield debate but this time he put it in writing and was published in the Illinois State Journal with the purpose of reaching more people.