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Squaring Off for a Showdown: The Lincoln–Douglas Debate

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln challenged Stephen Douglas to a series of seven debates as part of their race for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. It was a classic confrontation.

Douglas, the incumbent, was barely 5 feet tall, with a big head made larger by his pompadour hairstyle. He was resplendent in finely tailored suits and arrived for the debates in a private railroad car.

Lincoln was 6 feet 4 inches, with a homely face topped by a shock of unruly hair. He wore ill-fitting suits that stopped well short of his wrists and ankles and arrived for the debates on whatever passenger train was available.

Their debate strategies were simple. Douglas tried to make Lincoln look like an abolitionist, which he wasn’t, and Lincoln tried to make Douglas look like he was proslavery, which he wasn’t. But they did have a fundamental disagreement on what the eventual outcome of slavery would be.

Douglas won the election, but Lincoln won a national reputation. In the meantime, the country edged closer to a final showdown, needing only a spark to set off the firestorm. It got two.

Spark number 1: John Brown

John Brown was an Ohio abolitionist who was crazier than an outhouse rat. He believed he had been commanded by God to free the slaves, and he went about it by killing people in the Kansas fighting.

On October 16, 1859, Brown led a group of 18 white and black men on a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. After killing the mayor and taking some hostages, Brown’s gang was surrounded by militia and U.S. troops under the command of Capt. Robert E. Lee. Brown and five others were captured, and the rest killed.

After a trial, Brown was hanged. Many Southerners were convinced Brown had done what a lot of Northerners wanted to do; many Northerners considered him a martyr to a noble cause.

Spark number 2: Lincoln’s election

Lincoln, now a national figure, was nominated by the young Republican Party as its 1860 presidential candidate, mostly because they thought he would appeal to the North and the West. But the Democrats were split by the slavery issue.

Douglas was the official nominee, but a splinter group supported Buchanan’s vice president, John Breckenridge of Tennessee. And a fourth group of moderates, called the Union Party, supported John Bell of Kentucky.

When the votes were in, Lincoln had won less than a majority of the popular vote, but easily won the electoral vote and was the new president. Before he could take office, however, seven Southern states had already pulled out of the Union. Buchanan did nothing to try to stop them, and once the fighting started, they were followed by four more.

As the sun rose on April 12, 1861, secessionist guns fired on Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. America’s Civil War had begun.

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