In the contest for the Illinois Senate in 1858 Stephen A Douglas and Abraham Lincoln faced off in a series of seven debates that went on to become probably the most famous debates in history. At the heart of the debates was the question of the expansion of slavery in the territories of the United States. Douglas, a Democrat, espoused the idea of Popular Sovereignty. Under this plan the people of the territories would decide themselves if they would form in Free or Slave states. Lincoln, a Republican, stood firm against any expansion of the peculiar institution. These debates, though only for a state seat, would soon become a national phenomenon as both sides followed them intensely.
The issue of what to do about slavery in the United States had been haunting the country since its very founding. Was it protected by the Constitution? Could the courts decide the issue? Would the growing divide between the sections of the country develop into an irreconcilable split? Time and time again the question was kicked down the road by the government by a series of compromises that were intended to keep the balance of power between Free and Slave states.
The debates between Lincoln and Douglas did not start the Civil War, the country was already well on that path. What they did do was set the stage for what would be the last gasp of the attempts to resolve the issue peaceably. Douglas won the debates and his re-election to the Senate. In the process though, because he equivocated on the issue lost the support of the Southern Democrats which would lead to his failed presidential run a few years later. Lincoln lost the debates, but enjoyed an increased national profile that would lead him to win the next presidential election.
And that led directly to the Civil War…