Debates: Sit down, Lincoln, your time is up

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LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES First Debate – Ottawa, Ill., Aug. 21, 1858 Second Debate – Freeport, Ill., Aug. 27, 1858 Third Debate – Jonesboro, Ill., Sept. 15, 1858 Fourth Debate – Charleston, Ill., Sept. 18, 1858 Fifth Debate – Galesburg, Ill., Oct. 7, 1858 Sixth Debate – Quincy, Ill., Oct. 13, 1858 Seventh Debate – Alton, Ill., Oct. 15, 1858

 Why was the Lincoln-Douglas debate scene included in the Lincoln Museum?

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a series of formal political debates between the challenger, Abraham Lincoln, and the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas, in a campaign for one of Illinois’ two United States Senate seats. Although Lincoln lost the election, these debates launched him into national prominence which eventually led to his election as President of the United States.

Lincoln and Douglas agreed to debate in seven of the nine Illinois Congressional Districts; the seven where Douglas had not already spoken. In each debate either Douglas or Lincoln would open with an hour address. The other would then speak for an hour and a half. The first then had 30 minutes of rebuttal. In the seven debates, Douglas, as the incumbent, was allowed to go first four times.

The first debate was held in Ottawa, Ill., on Aug. 21, 1858.

It was dry and dusty, between 10,000 and 12,000 people were in attendance when the debate began at 2 p.m. There were no seats or bleachers.

Douglas charged Lincoln with trying to abolitionize the Whig and Democratic Parties. He also charged Lincoln had been present when a very radical abolitionist type platform had been written by the Republican Party in 1854. Douglas accused Lincoln of taking the side of the common enemy in the Mexican War. Douglas also said Lincoln wanted to make Illinois “a free Negro colony.” Douglas asked Lincoln seven questions.

Lincoln during his turn did not respond to the questions and was on the defensive denying the allegations Douglas had made. Lincoln charged Douglas with trying to nationalize slavery. 

In his rebuttal Douglas concentrated on the charge that Lincoln had been present when a very radical “abolitionist” type platform had been written by the Republican Party in 1854.

Charleston, Coles County, Sept. 18, 1858

“Saturday, Sept. 18, 1858, was the biggest day in the history of Charleston, that quiet little county seat amid the cornfields of eastern Illinois. It was the day that Abraham Lincoln met Senator Stephen Arnold Douglas in the fourth of their seven historic debates for the United States Senate,” wrote Charles A. Coleman in Abraham Lincoln and Coles County, Illinois.

“This was the fourth joint discussion, and no one who witnessed it could ever after doubt Lincoln’s ample ability to meet Douglas. The ‘little giant’ and his friends, had learned that there were blows to be received, as well as to be given. The Senator, who had begun the canvass at Ottawa, aggressive and overbearing, had learned caution, and that he must husband his resources. Ugly questions had been propounded to him, which it was difficult for him to answer. His action in relation to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which he was trying to justify, enabled Lincoln to keep him on the defensive. In reply to Douglas’s charge against Lincoln, of arousing sectional feeling, and leading a sectional party, the reply was already ready: ‘It was you, Douglas, that started the great conflagration; it was you that set the dry prairie on fire, by repealing the Missouri Compromise.’

“Douglas’s reply to Lincoln at Charleston, was mainly a defense. Lincoln’s close was intensely interesting and dramatic. His logic and arguments were crushing, and Douglas’s evasions were exposed, with a power and clearness that left him utterly discomfited. Republicans saw it, democrats realized it, and ‘a sort of panic seized them, and ran through the crowd of up-turned faces.’ Douglas realized his defeat, and, as Lincoln’s blows fell fast and heavy, he lost his temper. He could not keep his seat, he rose and walked rapidly up and down the platform, behind Lincoln, holding his watch in his hand, and obviously impatient for the call of ‘time.’ A spectator says: ‘He was great agitated, his long grizzled hair waving in the wind, like the shaggy locks of an enraged lion.’“

“It was while Douglas was thus exhibiting to the crowd his eager desire to stop Lincoln, that the latter, holding the audience entranced by his eloquence, was striking his heaviest blows. The instant the second hand of his watch reached the point at which Lincoln’s time was up, Douglas, holding up the watch, called out: ‘Sit down, Lincoln, sit down. Your time is up.’

Turning to Douglas, Lincoln said calmly: ‘I will. I will quit. I believe my time is up.’ 

‘Yes,’ said a man on the platform, ‘Douglas has had enough, it is time you let him up.’ 

And this spectator expressed the feeling of friend and foe, concerning this battle of the giants.


Information courtesy of National Park Service