The Lincoln-Douglas Debates and the Campaign of 1860: the Road to the Lincoln Presidency

In conjunction with the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication 2016  Presidential and Delaware candidate debates, the University of Delaware Library presents the exhibition “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates and the Campaign of 1860: the Road to the Lincoln Presidency.” The exhibition displays material from the extensive Lincoln Collection in the Library’s Special Collections Department.  The exhibition will be on view in the Lincoln Exhibit Case on the second floor of the Morris Library from September 23 through December 16, 2016 during the Library’s regular hours. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates and the Campaign of 1860: the Road to the Lincoln Presidency” presents an array of materials documenting the debates, the campaign, and the election, offering a unique historical l look at this important series of  events that led to the most volatile and divisive period in American history.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, by then a well-regarded lawyer and former one-term Republican congressman (1847-1849) from Illinois, challenged Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas for his Senate seat. Douglas agreed to an unprecedented series of debates held in towns across Illinois focusing on the issue of slavery. Although Douglas was re-elected, Lincoln gained national attention for his opposition to slavery.

After much political maneuvering, Lincoln won on the third ballot. The Republican platform was a compromise between abolitionists and more laissez-faire delegates. It opposed the expansion of slavery into the Western territories without condemning it in the South, criticized the judicial activism of the Dred Scott decision, denounced John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, endorsed a federal homestead law and a transcontinental railroad, and opposed stricter naturalization laws.

Douglas ran on the Democratic ticket but without the support of the Southern wing of the party which split off, believing that Douglas was weak on preserving slavery.  At a separate convention, the Southern Democrats nominated then Vice-President John C. Breckenridge as their candidate.  Another splinter group, calling itself the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John Bell of Tennessee, a wealthy slaveholder as their candidate for President.

Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency with virtually no support in the South.  His closest pursuer was Breckinridge with Douglas coming in dead last. When the popular vote was tallied, 60% of those who cast ballots voted for a candidate other than Lincoln. As soon as the election results were known, Southern states, led by South Carolina, began seceding from the Union. By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration, in March 1861, seven states had left the Union and a month later, the Civil War commenced.

One of the most successful forms of social media during this period was the printed pamphlet which sought to inform and influence the American people on virtually every issue of the day. As America’s population grew rapidly and printing costs declined, the use of pamphlets became commonplace in the nineteenth century. Revealing passionate views and multiple perspectives, pamphleteers addressed slavery, suffrage, civil liberties and dozens of other divisive issues. With quick turnaround time, pamphlets printed the texts of speeches, orations, debates, sermons, tracts, poems, songs, and much more. The pamphlets of the Civil War era are an important primary source for studying the issues that dominated the time and the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Election of 1860 are well represented.

The Election of 1860 might very well be the most significant American Presidential election in history. With the sharp divisions between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, between the two major parties, and within the American citizenry as a whole, the election of 2016 offers startling parallels to the 1860 Presidential election.

Curated by Timothy Murray