‘No Vote Can Make
a Wrong Right’
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were nearing the end of seven grueling debates across Illinois in their campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. Quincy’s Washington Square was the site of the sixth debate.
Slavery had been the focus of each debate. And so it would be in Quincy on that Wednesday, October 13, 1858. Lincoln believed that while they were compelled in 1787 to compromise on slavery to create a nation, the founding fathers had put the institution on a path to ultimate extinction. But a series of events, most notably Senator Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857, seemed to change that.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act had replaced geographical limits on slavery with “popular sovereignty” – letting voters decide whether territories would be slave or free. That was too risky for Lincoln, who believed slavery immoral. There were natural rights of men that transcended the peoples’ vote. And with the Court’s Dred Scott decision that territories could not prohibit slavery, vote or no, Lincoln feared it wouldn’t be long before the same court would hand down a decision that slave owners had a right to take their human property into the free states.
In 1849 Lincoln had returned to his Springfield law practice after a single term in Congress. Now, however, he was alarmed enough by Kansas-Nebraska to return to politics – and to challenge the nation’s most powerful Democrat who created it, Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Quincy-area voters had launched Douglas’s Congressional career in 1843, electing and in 1845 re-electing him to the U.S. House of Representatives before his appointment to the U.S. Senate in 1846 by the Illinois General Assembly. Lincoln in Quincy sought to get the citizenry to repudiate those elections.
Little known outside of Illinois, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates. The senator, well aware of his friend and fellow Illinoisan’s great rhetorical skills, reluctantly concurred. Douglas believed that to do otherwise would make him appear cowardly against the rangy, gangly Lincoln.
Graphic by Scott Adrian Hinton
Sculptor Lorado Taft’s Tribute to the Sixth Debate Washington Park, Quincy
Douglas remained steadfast in his response. The issue, he repeatedly answered, was a legal, not a moral, one. The nation’s founders had written slavery into the Constitution. To Douglas, that meant slavery was the law – a conclusion Lincoln himself admitted – and each state had the right to decide for itself whether it should have it. Douglas had argued that nearly all of the colonies that had entered the union with slavery had abolished it, evidence that slavery indeed was on a path to extinction. To Douglas’s way of thinking, voters given the choice would act in the same way. If the country would “Let the people rule,” as his hero Andrew Jackson had admonished, Douglas thought history had demonstrated voters would reject slavery. Like Jackson, Douglas believed that the virtue and wisdom of the people were expressed in the will of the people.
Lincoln wasn’t Douglas’s only competitor in the 1858 Senate contest. President James Buchanan also opposed him. Buchanan had minions working throughout Illinois to slate Democratic opponents against Douglas’s county supporters. Douglas had raised Buchanan’s ire by opposing the constitution for Kansas produced by the convention that met at Lecompton. It was replete with fraud, but Buchanan wanted the speedy approval of Lecompton to end the dangerous controversy over Kansas .
Buchanan himself had been a proponent of popular sovereignty and had pledged to Douglas and the nation that voters in the Kansas territory would be allowed to vote on their constitution. He weakened, however, under the pressure from his pro-slavery friends and Southern-dominated Cabinet. He reneged on his promise to allow a fair vote. The way the Lecompton convention’s product was to be presented to the voters virtually guaranteed Kansas would come into the Union a slave state. Douglas objected vigorously and promised Buchanan a fight. In an effort to erode Douglas’s strength among Illinois Democrats, Buchanan fired Douglas’s friends throughout Illinois who held federal offices. In Quincy, that included Douglas’s friend Austin Brooks, who had been Quincy’s postmaster.
Douglas was reelected to the Senate, which historians recognize as meaning he won the Debates of 1858. But Lincoln’s performances against the Little Giant, attracted attention in the nation’s Northwest and East. Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln would be their parties’ nominees for the Presidency two years later. Lincoln prevailed.
– By Reg Ankrom
Original Play Launches
Return of Lincoln, Douglas
To Quincy’s Great Debate
Ken Bradbury’s original play, “Mud, Mystics and Molasses: Lincoln and Douglas Come to Quincy,” was the opening of a month-long series of events to celebrate Quincy’s role in the great debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858.
An estimated 250 people attended the play, which featured eight actors and music recalling Quincy in the days leading up to the debate in Washington Square on October 13, 1858. The play, which became part of the Debate Sesequicentennial’s history, is available here:
New: Events Archive
Click here for a look at past events of the Quincy Lincoln Bicentennial Commission’s completed events.
Throughout the first five debates, Douglas frustrated Lincoln in his attempts to get his opponent to admit slavery was immoral. Douglas would not succumb in Quincy, either, to Lincoln’s attempt for such an admission. But Lincoln would not give up on his point. Lincoln told his audience at the Quincy Debate:
“When Judge Douglas says that whoever or whatever community wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong. . . .If it be a wrong, he cannot say that he would as soon see a wrong voted up as down.”
Since 1854, this had been the nub and the strength of Lincoln’s attack. Douglas’s popular sovereignty, which would give whites the power to vote slavery up or down, was an explicit denial of the humanity of blacks. Douglas could be right, Lincoln had said in Springfield in 1854, if “negroes were property in the same sense (as) hogs and horses. . . .” In Peoria a few days later, Lincoln said, “When the white man governs himself that is self government. But when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government. That is despotism.”
Over the following four years, Lincoln perfected his argument. In it, Lincoln exposed the flaw in Douglas’s effort to resolve the crisis between North and South. A vote could not make a wrong right.
Quincy To Celebrate
City’s Important Role
In Great 1858 Debates
Of Lincoln, Douglas
Nation’s Attention Focused on Quincy
During Contestants’ Battle over Slavery
Community to Relive History this Weekend
Quincyans from October 11 - 13 will celebrate the historically important role their community played in 1858 as one of seven communities at which Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas debated slavery in their contest for Douglas’s seat in the U.S. Senate.
Dozens of activities have been planned for Quincy’s celebration, which will be highlighted by the “reunion” of Lincoln and Douglas. A complete schedule of activities, arranged by the Quincy Lincoln Bicentennial Commission is available here.
Click This Picture for Schedule
Reunion in Quincy: Lincoln, Little Giant Return
Imagine that Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas have been reunited – not to reenact their now famous debates, but to revisit them. To return to the cities where thousands gathered to hear them. To reminisce about the hard-fought campaign that reelected Douglas to his seat in the United States Senate, and set Lincoln on the road to the presidency. History won’t be repeated, it will be recalled, as Reunion Tour ’08 brings together carefully prepared actors appearing as Lincoln and Douglas, accompanied by a moderator portraying a Lincoln-era naval officer. These talented performers are also friends, historians and teachers who are passionate about their roles and well-versed in local lore. With authentic arguments, undeniable drama and welcome humor, the characters of Lincoln, Douglas and captain Silas Terry will be the heart of a three-day celebration in Quincy on October 11, 12 and 13.Don’t miss this opportunity to learn more about theLincoln-Douglas Debates and Quincy’s day in the nation’s quest, when this city hosted one of Democracy’s most important events.
Thousands Crowded into Washington Park
Abraham Jonas and Other Quincy Friends
Stephen A. Douglas
Debate Site Redevelopment
Why This Debate?
Stream Quincy’s Douglas Symposium