Lincoln's Life in Letters:
The Debates

 View the Transcriptions

Brief Answer to his opening–

Put in the Democratic Resolutions–

Examine his Answers to my questions,

   "If the people of Kansas shall, by means entirely unobjectionable in all other respects, adopt a State Constitution, and ask admission into the Union under it before they have the requisite number of inhabitants according to the English Bill— some ninety three thousand— will you vote to admit them?"

   "Can the people of a United States Teritory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude Slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?"

Challenging Douglas

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.

Lincoln stands in an elevated speaker’s box decorated with flag iconography. Other men sit behind Lincoln including Stephen Douglas. A flag flutters in the wind above the seated gentlemen. The stage is surrounded by a crowd of standing spectators.
Artist Robert M. Root’s depiction of Lincoln and Douglas debating at Charleston.
Stephen Douglas is formally dressed in a dark jacket, waist coat and trousers. A tie is tied below an upturned white collar. With his hand balled in a loose fist on an adjacent surface, Douglas turns his head to return the gaze of the viewer.
Stephen A. Douglas.
Lincoln stands to address a crowd of spectators from an elevated platform. The railings of the stage are decorated with flag themed bunting. Lincoln grasps the lapel of his coat and looks out sternly into the crowd.
Artist George L. Parrish, Jr.’s, depiction of Lincoln speaking at the final debate in Alton.
Lincoln and Douglas engage in a bare knuckle boxing match. Both combatants are shirtless and wear trousers rolled to their knees with ankle high boots. Douglas also wears shirt collar and neckerchief. The cornerman for Lincoln is an African American man, while a white man seconds Douglas.
An 1860 political cartoon depicting Lincoln and Douglas fighting.

1860 Campaign

The Lincoln Family


Gettysburg Address

Mary Lincoln

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. To see more documents written to and by Lincoln from all over the world, please visit 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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