President Abraham Lincoln: Political Career and Road to the White House

About the political career of President Abraham Lincoln as he moves towards the White House, the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.

16th President ABRAHAM LINCOLN

On the Way to the White House: In 1854, Illinois senator Stephen Douglas pushed his controversial Kansas-Nebraska bill through Congress. In effect, this legislation allowed slavery in newly opened territories, and public opinion in the North was outraged. This agitation, which was particularly strong in Douglas's home State of Illinois, left Lincoln, with his long-standing hostility to slavery, in an excellent position to make a political comeback. He was quickly returned to the Illinois State legislature as an outspoken opponent of the expansion of slavery, and in 1855 he was narrowly defeated as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln remained loyal to his old party ties down to the last moment, but as the Whigs collapsed as an effective political party, Lincoln threw in his lot with the newly emerging antislavery Republicans. In 1858, the Republicans named Lincoln as their nominee for the Senate to oppose Stephen Douglas. Because of Douglas's prominence (he was universally recognized as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1860) this Senate contest received intensive national publicity. Lincoln was ready to make the most of his opportunity--he challenged his well-known opponent to a series of debates, and the 2 men met 7 times in various Illinois towns. In these justly celebrated debates, they spoke (without a microphone, of course) to crowds of up to 15,000 and explored the issues with a depth and seriousness unknown in any of our modern televised "debates." Douglas, an aggressive, pugnacious battler who at 5'4" was widely known as "The Little Giant" or "The Steam Engine in Britches," was perhaps a better platform orator than Lincoln, though Lincoln, with his rare gift for reasoning with an audience and his ability to explain even complex questions in simple, logical terms, was able to demolish the arguments of his opponent. Central to Lincoln's position was the contention that slavery was not only unjust, but a threat to free workers; if allowed to spread unchecked, it might reduce all laborers, white as well as black, to a state of virtual slavery. Lincoln's solution was to leave slavery alone where it already existed (while hoping that it would ultimately disappear) but to move decisively to prevent its spread into any unsettled (or previously free) territories. In the final balloting, Lincoln actually outpolled Douglas, though the Democrats had gerrymandered the State legislative districts so skillfully that "The Little Giant" was nonetheless returned to the Senate. Though exhausted from his campaign, and disappointed at the outcome, Lincoln emerged from his defeat with political prospects brighter than ever. His battle with Douglas had made him a national hero to antislavery forces. While publicly denying that he was qualified for the Presidency, Lincoln departed on an extended speaking tour of the Midwest and Northeast, designed to advertise his "availability." As the Republican convention of 1860 approached, party leaders in ever increasing numbers began taking a serious look at "Honest Abe" of Illinois. As Republican chieftain Jesse Fell saw the situation in 1858: "What the Republican party wants, to insure success in 1860, is a man of popular origin, of acknowledged ability, committed against slavery aggressions, who has no record to defend, and no radicalism of an offensive character." Abraham Lincoln fit the bill perfectly.

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