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The Lincoln-Douglas debates are an excellent reflection of the time period…and unfortunately kind of tarnish the amazing rep that Lincoln has as a do-or-die abolitionist. We know, we're sorry. At least you can sleep soundly knowing that he actually rocked a super tall stovepipe hat.
The debate over the issue of slavery had reached a boiling point, as one side looked to end a long-running hypocrisy and the other sought to hold onto their livelihoods and their way of life.
In fact, it was Senator Douglas' own Kansas-Nebraska Act that had recently made the territories into slave-holding states through use of popular sovereignty. This launched the country into fresh turmoil as the national policy on slavery continued to flip-flop. (Source)
Douglas' tactic was to try and paint Lincoln as an abolitionist, which at this point was still unacceptable to many Northern whites. And although Honest Abe has been venerated as the Great Emancipator who single-handedly ended slavery, his views were more moderate than that.
At this point in his career, Lincoln and most fellow Republicans wanted to stop the spread of slavery rather than get rid of it completely. While he was undoubtedly at the forefront of civil rights compared to a bunch of his political compatriots, Lincoln's views and circumstances had a ways to go before he suggested the complete abolition of slavery.
Before his historic presidency, and before the debates that made him famous, Lincoln kicked off his senatorial campaign with a rousing speech in the Illinois capital.
In an eloquent and prescient bit of foresight, he proclaimed, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." And, no, he wasn't talking about a home where half of the family members love Game of Thrones and half of the fam says things like, "But I don't like fantasy. Aren't there dragons?"
Abe was talking about the issue of slavery that cleft the nation in two…and he'd soon learn just how right he was.
Slavery. It's one of those things that's so bad it's almost impossible to comprehend…even as it existed as a very real-deal (and supremely evil) economic system.
Free people living in the 19th century were aware of the evils of slavery. Whether it was firsthand on a plantation or through stories in newspapers and books, it was an ever-present theme throughout society. But without hearing about it in detail, slavery was so massive an atrocity that it was hard to take in.
Enter Frederick Douglass. The story of one man's journey from slavery to freedom, told in his own voice, was a super powerful thing. Frederick Douglass' first autobiography couldn't help but stir the hearts of the men and women who read it. His personal story connected with people, and the success of his book and subsequent speeches allowed the abolitionist cause to flourish.