Houses Divided: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Political Landscape of 1858

Teaching the Article

Election day is one of the most important moments in the life of a democracy. Elections not only choose leaders, they affirm the participatory nature of democracy. It is no wonder that election day has always involved a certain amount of hoopla, since it involves both a political function (the voting) and a celebration function (affirming the system). But election days have not always looked or functioned as they do today. The basics are the same—votes are cast, votes are counted, and the candidate with the most votes wins—but the run-up to election day in 1858, the year of Abraham Lincoln’s and Stephen A. Douglas’s famous campaigns for the U.S. Senate, looked and sounded very different from campaigns today.

The Lincoln-Douglas campaigns of 1858 (I use the plural deliberately, to emphasize that Lincoln and Douglas ran two very different races) offer a unique opportunity to look at American electioneering. They speak directly to a persistent question: Does the local or the national matter more to Americans? Political history has often been written as though Americans care only about presidential elections and that they regard all other races with varied levels of indifference—the more local the race, the less they care. But a number of political historians—notably Michael F. Holt among those who study nineteenth-century politics—argue that the survival of the national parties depended on how well they could perform in state and local elections. Evidence seems to suggest that Americans today give only slight notice to local and state elections, concentrating all their political attention on presidential elections. My own experience of being involved in local political action for six years makes me suspicious of that conclusion. I learned a good deal about the intricate networks of municipal, county, state, and national politicking, which prepared me to examine the campaign of 1858 in ways that might not have occurred to other historians.

Because the 1858 campaigns were not for the presidency, we can look at them to see what Americans were doing during elections when “no one was looking,” when the issues were significant mostly to Illinoisans. At the same time, though, the Lincoln-Douglas campaigns did take on at least some aspects of a national campaign. Douglas had broken with the Democratic party and with President James Buchanan over the Lecompton Constitution, and Buchanan’s vow to abandon Douglas in retaliation turned the 1858 Senate race into a kind of referendum on whether Buchanan or Douglas was the top dog of the Democratic party. Buchanan’s success would depend on how deep his reach extended, as a national party leader, into Illinois state politics. The Illinois Senate race of 1858 shows how American politics blended both local and national concerns. Lincoln’s campaign also depended on that blend of concerns. Lincoln was the favorite son of the Illinois Republican party, but he had to deal with disaffected elements within a rickety Illinois Republican coalition and with an East Coast Republican national leadership that was seriously considering backing Douglas to woo him over to the Republican party. The local and the national intersected again when, during their seven debates, Lincoln and Douglas spoke to only one subject, a national one—slavery. Yet they conducted that single-issue discussion with an eye toward the local impact slavery was having, and might continue to have, on Illinois. Douglas spoke principally about his doctrine of “popular sovereignty” and how it would end the congressional stalemate over slavery in the territories, ensuring for Illinoisans and their children the opportunity to move to territories that had been successfully organized, surveyed, and codified; Lincoln pointed out that the logic of popular sovereignty might well result in the introduction of slavery into Illinois by court order.

Another subject that this article addresses is the large-scale political mechanisms at work during elections. Few Americans look under the hood to see how the political process works, but elections do not happen without the mobilization of myriads of citizens to perform a wide array of tasks, from distributing campaign literature to setting up and staffing the polling places. The 1858 campaigns were supervised and coordinated by a vast, interlocking array of committees, rising like a pyramid to the state central committee. However idealistic about certain issues a candidate might be, he could not afford to ignore the directives and warnings of the various committees. Douglas, by virtue of his national stature and well-oiled state organization, was in a better position to dictate to his committees than was Lincoln, who had no such leverage. Lincoln had to do what he was told if he wanted to mobilize the party rank and file behind him.

And in 1858, money made that mobilization possible as it does today . Part of that money came from donations from individuals, often powerful out-of-state elites; another part came from people who expected a reward—that a successful candidate would award his faithful workers with patronage appointments and the surprisingly lucrative salaries that came (before civil service reform) with nineteenth-century government jobs. Incumbents benefited from having a host of patronage appointees already in place who would do the candidate’s work, if they wanted to keep their jobs and salaries. If that sounds uncomfortably similar to much modern political logrolling, then it will perhaps come as some consolation to know that Lincoln and Douglas employed this system, too, and the republic survived anyway.

But, as we know now, this was not just any state election. Lincoln won national visibility from the 1858 Senate race, even as he lost the actual election, paving his way to the presidency in 1860. We also know that the most important issue for both Lincoln and Douglas and for Illinoisans, was the national debate over slavery, which would shortly erupt into civil war. Lincoln struck his most powerful blows against Douglas in the seven debates when he lifted the slavery issue out of the realm of political debate and into the arena of morality. Douglas decried attempts to make slavery and race into moral issues. It had long been the contention of Douglas’s Democratic party that judgments of right and wrong were so subjective and so divisive that they were best confined to the private sphere. But Lincoln’s political schooling had occurred in the old Whig party, whose political culture readily embraced questions of values and established significant alliances with American Protestant evangelicalism. As an “old Whig,” he turned naturally in that direction to make his points against Douglas, arguing that the nature of slavery meant that no one could avoid making moral judgments in public about it. Ultimately, the Lincoln-Douglas campaigns rose above the local-national divide by asking difficult questions: Is America about more than merely democratic process? Does it have a moral core that is non-negotiable, even if unrecognized by the Constitution? Even though the issue of slavery is a long-settled one in America’s political past, we are left with lingering questions highlighted by the Lincoln and Douglas’s debates: Does American politics run the risk of killing the soul of American democracy if it dodges moral issues? Or do questions of morality run the risk of carving American politics into factions, each so convinced of their absolute truth that nothing short of civil war can resolve them?