The campaign dragged on for more than five months. For the past three months, the two aspiring candidates for the United States Senate met in seven towns in Illinois to debate the issues. And of course, slavery was the issue.
On this date in 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas met for their seventh and final debate in Alton, IL.
Douglas spent a considerable amount of time trying to define Lincoln as an abolitionist. He wanted the crowd to believe that Lincoln not only opposed slavery in the territories, but he also advocated perfect equality amongst the races.
Referring to a speech Lincoln had given earlier in the campaign, Douglas told the crowd:
In that Chicago speech he even went further than he had before, and uttered sentiments in regard to the negro being on an equality with the white man. (That's so.) He adopted in support of this position the argument which Lovejoy and Codding, and other Abolition lecturers had made familiar in the northern and central portions of the State, to wit: that the Declaration of Independence having declared all men free and equal, by Divine law, also that negro equality was an inalienable right, of which they could not be deprived. He insisted, in that speech, that the Declaration of Independence included the negro in the clause asserting that all men were created equal, and went so far as to say that if one man was allowed to take the position, that it did not include the negro, others might take the position that it did not include other men. He said that all these distinctions between this man and that man, this race and the other race, must be discarded, and we must all stand by the Declaration of Independence, declaring that all men were created equal.
I’ve always found it curious that Douglas used the name Lovejoy during this speech. Presumably, Douglas is referring to the abolitionist Owen Lovejoy, whose brother Elijah was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, IL in 1837.
Of course, Douglas was distorting Lincoln’s position on slavery, just as he was twisting his opponent’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln used his time to clarify his position. He read an excerpt from an earlier speech he had delivered, which he hoped would illustrate his interpretation of the Declaration:
I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal---equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.
They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.
The Alton Debate marked the last time Lincoln and Douglas would engage in face-to-face debate in 1858. The election was just two weeks away.