Sixth Debate with Douglas (October 13, 1858)
#31 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents
“I will say now that there is a sentiment in the country contrary to me-a sentiment which holds that slavery is not wrong, and therefore it goes for the policy that does not propose dealing with it as a wrong.”
On This Date
How Historians Interpret
“As for Douglas’s complaint that Lincoln would not utter in downstate Illinois what he said in Chicago, the challenger cited his address on the Dred Scott case, delivered in Springfield the previous year, which contained ‘the substance of the Chicago speech.’ He once again protested against Douglas’s contention that if people believed that blacks were incorporated in the statement that ‘all men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence, they must therefore support racial intermarriage. ‘He can never be brought to understand that there is any middle ground on this subject. I have lived until my fiftieth year, and have never had a negro woman either for a slave or a wife, and I think I can live fifty centuries, for that matter, without having had one for either.’ Lincoln disputed Douglas’s boast that he had voluntarily come forward when he discovered the Ottawa forgery. In fact, Lincoln argued, it was only after the Republican press had exposed the fraud that Douglas acknowledged his error, an acknowledgement that he now sought to make a virtue, though the newspapers had made it a necessity. The Illinois State Journal regarded the Quincy debate ‘as the most damaging to Douglas in the series. Lincoln carried the war into Africa, and came off with flying colors.’ Many Iowans crossed the Mississippi River to hear the debate and returned favorably impressed with Lincoln. The Chicago Times called Lincoln’s effort ‘the lamest and most impotent attempt he has yet made to bolster up the false position he took at the outset of the fight.'”
—Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript By Chapters, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 1, Chapter 13 (PDF), pp. 1473-1474
“In his hour and a half rebuttal, Douglas again charged that Lincoln altered his views on Negro equality to suit southern and northern audiences. He persisted in his refusal to debate the right or wrong of slavery, and where the Dred Scott decision was concerned declared more bluntly than ever that it was ‘the law of the land, binding on every citizen.’ With this new opening before him, Lincoln used his rejoinder to suggest that Douglas’s frank admission finally brought the candidates ‘a little nearer the true issue of this controversy.’ It was clearer than ever, he charged, that the Democratic party was conspiring to make slavery national and permanent. As for equality for blacks, Lincoln joked: ‘I, for my part, have lived some fifty years. And I never had a negro slave or a negro wife, and I think I can live fifty centuries for that matter without having either.’”
—The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete Unexpurgated Text, Ed. Harold Holzer, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 279.
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We have in this nation this element of domestic slavery. It is a matter of absolute certainty that it is a disturbing element. It is the opinion of all the great men who have expressed an opinion upon it, that it is a dangerous element. We keep up a controversy in regard to it. That controversy necessarily springs from difference of opinion, and if we can learn exactly-can reduce to the lowest elements-what that difference of opinion is, we perhaps shall be better prepared for discussing the different systems of policy that we would propose in regard to that disturbing element. I suggest that the difference of opinion, reduced to its lowest terms, is no other than the difference between the men who think slavery a wrong and those who do not think it wrong. The Republican party think it wrong-we think it is a moral, a social and a political wrong. We think it as a wrong not confining itself merely to the persons or the States where it exists, but that it is a wrong in its tendency, to say the least, that extends itself to the existence of the whole nation. Because we think it wrong, we propose a course of policy that shall deal with it as a wrong. We deal with it as with any other wrong, in so far as we can prevent its growing any larger, and so deal with it that in the run of time there may be some promise of an end to it. We have a due regard to the actual presence of it amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and all the Constitutional obligations thrown about it. I suppose that in reference both to its actual existence in the nation, and to our Constitutional obligations, we have no right at all to disturb it in the States where it exists, and we profess that we have no more inclination to disturb it than we have the right to do it. We go further than that; we don’t propose to disturb it where, in one instance, we think the Constitution would permit us. We think the Constitution would permit us to disturb it in the District of Columbia. Still we do not propose to do that, unless it should be in terms which I don’t suppose the nation is very likely soon to agree to-the terms of making the emancipation gradual and compensating the unwilling owners. Where we suppose we have the Constitutional right, we restrain ourselves in reference to the actual existence of the institution and the difficulties thrown about it. We also oppose it as an evil so far as it seeks to spread itself. We insist on the policy that shall restrict it to its present limits. We don’t suppose that in doing this we violate any thing due to the actual presence of the institution, or any thing due to the Constitutional guaranties thrown around it.