The year is 1858. Abraham Lincoln and his Democratic political opponent Stephen Douglas are engaged in a series of verbal jousting matches that will change the course of U.S. history. These meetings will in future become known as “The Great Debates of 1858” – and the primary subject is that of slavery. But when Douglas calls Lincoln “two-faced,” the future president responds with something that is completely unexpected – and it will do no harm at all to his growing reputation.
The seven debates took place between August 21 and October 13, and all were staged in the state of Illinois. There was an election coming up, and both men were vying for a place in the U.S. Senate, representing Illinois. Douglas was the incumbent, seeking his third term, and had been in office since 1846. Lincoln, meanwhile, was his challenger.
The battle between the two politicians was for control of the Illinois state legislature, the General Assembly. At that time, the body was responsible for electing its senate member – so whoever controlled the Assembly effectively had the power to nominate the state representative. And although the Great Debates were dominated by the topic of slavery, Illinois was in fact a free state – one where there was no enslavement of African-Americans.