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If there was ever a single-issue candidate for high office, it was Abraham Lincoln. In 1854, slavery, specifically the threatened spread of slavery into the Western territories, dominated his thoughts, and the issue set him afire. His voice took on new urgency, his message greater clarity, and he would entertain no compromise. Lincoln considered Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s concept of “popular sovereignty”—allowing the territories to determine their own policy on slavery—a denial of the responsibility of the Congress to uphold the United States Constitution. Lincoln’s guiding beacon was the statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” By upholding that principle, with all of its implications, Abraham Lincoln set the course for his own destiny and that of the United States.

Kansas/Nebraska Act

The passage of this Act in 1854 negated the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and made it possible for voters in Kansas and Nebraska to decide whether or not slavery would exist in their respective territories. Opponents of slavery were outraged. Abraham Lincoln clearly saw the threat that such legislation presented to a government founded on the ideals and principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. In a brilliant speech at Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854, he laid out his objections to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The speech revived his political career.

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Broadside Against Slavery

After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Eli Thayer, a “Free-Stater,” crusaded to bring the Kansas Territory into the Union as a state that banned slavery. Through broadsides and other means, he attempted to block the extension of slavery into the Western territories. Thayer also organized the New England Emigrant Aid Company, which brought 2,000 anti-slavery settlers to Kansas.

Kansas. To Those that Desire that Kansas Should be Free. Worcester, MA: November 22, 1854. Printed Ephemera Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (016) Digital ID # al0016

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Lincoln and Douglas in Peoria, 1854

Sixty-one years after the event, William H. Pierce penned this brief account of the encounter between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Pierce was living on a small farm about twenty miles outside Peoria in October 1854, and not wanting to miss a verbal duel between two of the state’s leading politicians, he drove his wagon to town the preceding day, positioning it some fifty feet from the veranda of the courthouse where the speeches were to take place. Obviously a Lincoln man, Pierce had little complimentary to say about Douglas other than to compare the Democratic senator’s voice to the roar of a lion. Lincoln, by contrast, speaking in what Pierce described as a “head tone,” was both forceful and factual, making few if any gestures.

William H. Pierce. Reminiscence on the debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in Peoria on October 16, 1854. Holograph manuscript, ca. 1900. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00) Digital ID # al0018, al0018_01, al0018_02, al0018_03, al0018_04, al0018_05, al0018_06, al0018_07, al0018_08, al0018_09

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Railroad Map of Illinois

In mid-nineteenth-century America, railroads provided a fairly comfortable and timely form of travel. When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas selected the seven sites for their famous series of debates, they obviously did so with railroad access in mind. nitially, both senatorial candidates wanted to hold nine debates, one in each of the state’s congressional districts. However, both men had already spoken in Springfield and Chicago within a day of each other and therefore decided to limit their joint appearances to the remaining seven districts.

G. Woolworth Colton’s Railroad Map of Illinois. New York: G. Woolworth Colton, 1861. Lithograph. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (023) Digital ID # rr002040

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President Pierce’s Support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act raised the sectional controversy over slavery to a level that precluded reconciliation. Most controversial was the provision for a principle of government called “popular sovereignty,” which provided that settlers in the new territories could decide the issue of slavery for themselves. Not only did President Franklin Pierce lend his support to the provocative measure, he also declared his support for the South. Naturally timid, and plagued by alcoholism, Pierce yielded power over his administration’s policies to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders.

President Franklin Pierce to William C. Clark, April 9, 1854. Holograph letter. On loan from a private collector (014.00.00) Digital ID # al0014_01, 0014_02, 0014_03

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Reynolds's Political Map of the United States

Although Civil War scholars continue to debate the importance of the role of slavery in the Civil War, the growing sectionalism that threatened the nation is visible at a glance in this vintage, highly partisan political map of the United States. Equally revealing are the tables of statistics for each of the states from the 1850 census, the results of the 1852 presidential election, congressional representation by state, and the number of slaves held by owners. Published during the presidential campaign of 1856, the map was an effective piece of election propaganda for the newly created Republican Party.

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Finding His Voice

Compelled by conscience to attack both the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its principal author and defender, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln found his true voice. In Peoria, he spoke immediately after Douglas, who was touring Illinois to defend the Kansas-Nebraska Act. From that moment on, abolitionists, Free-Soilers, and members of the new Republican Party began to think of Lincoln as their spokesman. Drafted in 1855 to run for the U.S. Senate, Lincoln began with a majority vote in the legislature in a very complicated contest, but could not reach the necessary number of votes to secure his election.

“Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently—forever—half slave, and half free?”

Judge George Robertson, a professor of law at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, called at the office of Lincoln and Herndon during a visit to Springfield in July 1855. Lincoln was in court in Chicago at the time, so Robertson left an inscribed copy of his published speeches and writings: Scrap Book on Law and Politics. In this polite letter of appreciation, Lincoln takes issue only with Robertson’s belief in the peaceful extinction of slavery. Three years later Lincoln would repeat his closing remarks to great effect in his “House Divided” speech.

Abraham Lincoln to George Robertson, August 15, 1855. Holograph letter inserted into George Robertson’s Scrap Book on Law and Politics. Lexington, Kentucky: A.W. Elder, 1855. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (20.00.01) Digital ID # al0020p1, al0020p2

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Horace Greeley to Joseph Medill

As editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley wielded considerable political influence. His fervent abolitionism drew him quickly into the Republican ranks. However, Eastern Republicans, such as Greeley, supported Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in the 1858 Senate campaign. In this letter to Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Press and Tribune, Greeley complains about the lack of enthusiasm for Douglas among Republicans in Illinois. Medill promptly forwarded Greeley’s letter to Lincoln, who made this personal copy.

Horace Greeley to Joseph Medill, July 24, 1858. Holograph letter. Robert Todd Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (025.00.01) Digital ID # al0025_p1, al0025_p2

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Lincoln and Douglas

During the 1858 campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate from the state of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas engaged in a series of debates that, in effect, changed the course of the nation’s history. The main issue was slavery, and the two candidates voiced two of the major opinions of the country. At the time of the debates, Douglas was by far the better known of the two men.

This ambrotype photograph of Lincoln was made on October 1, 1858, in Pittsfield, Illinois, six days before his fifth joint debate with Douglas at Galesburg, Illinois. It is one of the earliest portraits of Lincoln that can still be located in original format. Mathew Brady took the daguerreotype of Douglas sometime between 1844 and 1860.

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“Little Giant”

At the time of the Lincoln Douglas debates, Douglas was by far the better known of the two men. Douglas was five feet, four inches tall, but his breadth of shoulder and solidity, combined with a remarkable intellect and a gift for oratory, earned him the nickname “Little Giant.” This original plaster life mask of Douglas, made by Leonard Volk in 1857, is part of the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

Leonard W. Volk. Life mask of Stephen A. Douglas, 1857. Alfred Whital Stern Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (035) Digital ID # scsm/1058/003

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Douglas Sets the Places and Dates

The initial suggestion for the series of debates between Senator Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln seems to have come from the Chicago Press and Tribune, or more specifically, the paper’s chief editor, Joseph Medill. However, Lincoln was quick to pick up on the idea. The sites proposed for the debates were part of Douglas’s strategy to reach swing voters, but neither candidate was interested in campaigning in areas where they could expect little support.

Stephen A. Douglas to Abraham Lincoln, July 30, 1858. Holograph letter. Robert Todd Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (026.00.01) Digital ID # al0026p1, al0026p2

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Lincoln Prepares for the Debates

William H. Herndon stated that his law partner created this commonplace book as a reference in preparation for his debates with Stephen A. Douglas. The clippings and notations found in the book are germane to the primary subject of the debates—slavery and popular sovereignty.

Commonplace book created by Abraham Lincoln, 1858. Herndon-Weik Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (029.00.00) Digital ID # al0029, al0029_01, al0029_02, al0029_03, al0029_04, al0029_05, al0029_06, al0029_07

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Lincoln-Douglas Debates Scrapbook, 1858

Lincoln prepared this scrapbook of newspaper clippings of his debates with Stephen A. Douglas shortly after the close of the 1858 Senate campaign. The scrapbook begins with a clipping of Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech, which he gave at the close of the Republican state convention when he had been nominated to run for the U.S. Senate. He deliberately selected debate texts taken from politically friendly newspapers. The clippings of his own speeches were from the Republican Chicago Press & Tribune, and Douglas’s from the Democratic Chicago Times. Lincoln occasionally made notes in the margins when he felt the reporting required changes or comment.

“Speech of Hon. Abraham Lincoln” from Chicago Press and Tribune. Scrapbook created by Abraham Lincoln, 1858. Alfred Whital Stern Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (030) Digital ID # 0010

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Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Illinois legislature returned Stephen A. Douglas to the United States Senate. Nevertheless, Lincoln followed through with his plan to publish the debates by submitting his scrapbook to Follett, Foster, and Company.

Political Debates between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, in the Celebrated Campaign of 1858 in Illinois. . . . Columbus: Follett, Foster and Company, 1860. Alfred Whital Stern Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (031.00.00) Digital ID # al0031, al0031_01, al0031_02

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Lincoln’s Residence in Springfield

This Greek Revival style house at the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets in Springfield, Illinois, was home to the Lincoln family for seventeen years. The initial structure was built in 1839 as a five-room cottage. Mary was largely responsible for expanding the house to the size depicted here to better accommodate her growing family. The publisher took artistic license with Lincoln, who would have been beardless at the close of his campaign against Douglas.

Louis Kurz. Mr. Lincoln. Residence and Horse. In Springfield, Illinois, as They Appeared on his Return at the Close of the Campaign with Senator Douglas. Chicago: Kurz and Allison, July 15, 1865. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (041) Digital ID # pga-01932

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Chair from the Law Office of Lincoln and Herndon

This is an original caned chair from the law office of Lincoln and Herndon in Springfield, Illinois. One young law student who studied in the office remembered the furniture as dilapidated, consisting of a desk, table, sofa, and a half-dozen plain wooden chairs. The strength or durability of furniture is said to have interested Lincoln more than its appearance.

Chair from Abraham Lincoln’s law office. On loan from the Union Pacific Railroad Historical Collection, Council Bluffs, Iowa (036) [Image is currently not available online]

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The Lincoln and Herndon Law Office

In 1843 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen T. Logan relocated their law office to the third floor of a recently constructed Greek Revival brick building on the corner of Sixth and Adams Streets. The building, partly visible in this contemporary photograph, was owned by Springfield merchant Seth M. Tinsley. Lincoln and Logan dissolved their partnership the following year, and Lincoln, retaining the office, brought in William H. Herndon as his new partner. With a federal courtroom and post office in the same building, and the county courthouse one block away, the location was ideal.

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