On this date in 1858, the famous series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen Douglas began in Illinois. They would debate seven times, one for each congressional district in Illinois. Douglas had served in Congress for 15 years, and was nationally known. Lincoln had no Congressional experience and was a relative mystery. They debated the issue of slavery. Tensions were high, many realized the ominous clouds of war were approaching rapidly. This Senate race and these debates were closely watched throughout the country, as they seemed to be revealing future difficult decisions the entire country was soon going to have to make.
Douglas campaigned on the platform of Popular Sovereignty, which meant he thought that each state should get to decide for itself as to whether or not it would have slavery. Lincoln wanted Slavery to be contained in the southern states it already existed in, but not allowed outside of it. Douglas would win in the senate race, but lose to Lincoln in the Presidential election of 1860. Shortly after Lincoln’s inauguration, the civil war began. Douglas pledged to do everything he could to support Lincoln and the war effort, but unfortunately he died only six weeks into the war.
People often point to quotes during these debates and say, “Abraham Lincoln wasn’t even really against slavery.” That is somewhat true. Lincoln said many times during the debates that his biggest concern was not slavery, but keeping the Union together. Here is a quote, which is accurate, that was said by Abraham Lincoln during his debates with Stephen Douglas:
September 6, 1858: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making VOTERS or jurors of negroes, NOR OF QUALIFYING THEM HOLD OFFICE, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any of her man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Wow…..tough to get more racist than that.
Today, many people use this to diminish Lincoln, and to promote others of the time who owned slaves and defended the institution of slavery. However there is one major point these people miss:
Prior to 1858, Abraham Lincoln had spent most of his life in Illinois, a free state. He had not seen the horrors of slavery first hand. There was no television, few pictures, and no internet. If one lived in a state without slaves, it was an evil that was hard to fully comprehend.
Abraham Lincoln was a learner. He read, he talked to people, he listened, he thought, he grew. As each of the final seven years of his life passed, he became a more and more ardent opponent of slavery. After the battle of Antietam in the summer of 1862, he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. This turned the war from one with the goal of keeping the Union together, to one to end slavery in America forever.
In 2017, Abraham Lincoln is honored and revered like few other people in American history. He is on money. He has statues and monuments of him spread out all across the land. He has cities, mountains, lakes, and roads named after him. By naming all of these things after him, we not only honor his memory, but tell the people who follow him that we want them to be like him. We want them to be honest, visionary, resilient leaders like Lincoln, but most importantly, we want them to emulate Lincoln’s greatest characteristic: growth.
Great leaders have confidence, but also the capacity to admit that they might not be seeing the big picture clearly. They might need more information. They might need to hear more sides of a story. They might need to rethink something. They might need to change their mind.
It wasn’t only Lincoln. When President John F. Kennedy entered office in 1961, his concerns for the advancement of civil rights were very limited. When he learned more about Jim Crow Laws and bigotry in the American south, he changed. In June of 1963, he introduced the most comprehensive civil rights bill in American history. When President Barack Obama assumed office in 2009, he was not a proponent of either gay marriage or gays serving openly in the military. It took awhile, but after listening and learning, his Presidency ushered in the biggest period of advancement of gay rights in American history.
Too often today we find ourselves stubborn and sticking to our guns no matter what. We fear that anything else may be an admission of weakness. In reality, it is a display of strength. I can think of few more sentences that merit respect than, ” You know, I’ve thought about it some more, and I’ve changed my mind.”
Bob Hammitt is a high school Social Studies teacher from Canby, Oregon.
Bob draws on his knowledge and love of history to
teach valuable lessons for our present and future.
See more of Bob's insightful writings on his blog, The Unfinished Pyramid