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Richard Carwardine

What's Democracy For?

The Lincoln-Douglas debates.

"Let the voice of the people rule." With this grandiose declaration at the dawn of 1859, Stephen Arnold Douglas welcomed the news that the Illinois legislature had re-elected him to the United States Senate. His victory over Abraham Lincoln followed a statewide campaign whose outcome, two months earlier, he had already deemed a "glorious triumph for the principle of self-government." The Democratic senator's euphoria was understandable. He had survived an unexpectedly strong challenge from the newly organized Republican party, and also seen off the "Danites," the local supporters of President James Buchanan, keen to punish him for his spectacular breach with the national administration. Pushing his voice and body to their limits during the four-month campaign, when he traveled some five thousand miles to deliver nearly sixty speeches, Douglas had drawn on the debating qualities that had won him the title of the "Little Giant" and made him the most formidable congressional presence of his time.

Throughout that summer and fall Douglas had repeatedly castigated Lincoln for his leadership of a party tainted with abolitionist poison, insisting a Republican victory would open the door to a racial revolution that would not only raise African Americans to civic and political equality with whites but also promote the races' sexual intermixing.  Acutely attuned to Illinois voters' deep race consciousness and to the strength of conservative sentiment in the state's swing counties, Douglas hammered home his twin themes: Lincoln's ill-concealed radicalism and, by contrast, the stabilizing, consensual benefits of his own doctrine of "popular sovereignty," which honored within each state and territorial community the wishes of the democratic majority of white men.

Was the Little Giant the real victor, however? It was, after all, chiefly thanks to Lincoln and not Douglas that the joint debates of 1858—prologue to a reversal of their respective fortunes in the presidential race ...

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