The national debate over slavery’s expansion took center stage in the 1850s. Lincoln’s beloved Whig Party collapsed over the issue and Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas ascended as a major figure in the Democratic Party. These forces pushed Lincoln to publicly adopt a more anti-slavery view and eventually join the new Republican Party.

Lincoln’s 1858 attempt to unseat Douglas happened in this midst of this broader conflict and became a national story. Over a series of seven debates—a unique campaign feature at the time—he and Douglas fought over the legal nature of slavery, the wisdom of Douglas’s policies, and the place of Black people in American society. Lincoln wrote these notes before the third debate at Jonesboro, reflecting on the Kansas statehood crisis and the legality of slavery’s expansion. Lincoln did not win Douglas’s seat but gained a national reputation that positioned him for a presidential run.

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Lincoln's Life in Letters The Debates Photos

Photos for Lincoln Life in Letters The Debates panel

The documents highlighted in this exhibit are all drawn from our own collection. The originals are in our vault and the images were created by our Papers of Abraham Lincoln project. Please visit their website,, to see more documents written to and by Lincoln from all over the world. If you have a Lincoln document, or know someone who does, please reach out to us. We are always looking for new discoveries.


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