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Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America

Recorded on March 18, 2008

Location: The Heritage Foundation's Lehrman Auditorium

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was known as a successful Illinois lawyer who had achieved some prominence in state politics as a leader in the new Republican Party.  Two years later, he was elected President of the United States.  What carried him from obscurity to fame was his campaign for the United States Senate and the seven debates held that summer and fall with his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, the country's most formidable politician.  

Of course, the great issue between Lincoln and Douglas was slavery.  Douglas championed "popular sovereignty," letting states and territories decide for themselves to legalize slavery.  Lincoln drew a moral line, arguing that slavery was a violation both of natural law and of the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence.  No majority could ever make slavery right, he argued.

The encounters between Lincoln and Douglas engage a key question in American political life: What is democracy's purpose?  Is it to satisfy the desires of the majority?  Or is it to achieve a just and moral public order?  These were the real questions in 1858 that led to the Civil War. They remain questions for Americans today. 

ALLEN C. GUELZO, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era, Director of Civil War Era Studies, and Associate Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Author of numerous books on American intellectual history and on Abraham Lincoln, he holds a Master's of Arts and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Pennsylvania.  His most famous work, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Wm. Eerdmans, 1999), won both the Lincoln Prize and the Abraham Lincoln Institute Prize in 2000.