Lincoln entered upon the task which his party friends had devised with neither bravado nor misgiving. He had not sought these public discussions; neither did he shrink from them. Throughout his whole life he appears to have been singularly correct in his estimate of difficulties to be encountered and of his own powers for overcoming them. Each of these seven meetings, comprising both the Republican and Democratic voters of the neighboring counties, formed a vast, eager, and attentive assemblage. It needed only the first day’s experience to show the wisdom of the Republican leaders in forcing a joint discussion upon Douglas. Face to face with his competitor, he could no longer successfully assume airs of superiority, or wrap himself in his Senatorial dignity and prestige. They were equal spokesmen, of equal parties, on an equal platform, while applause and encouragement on one side balanced applause and encouragement on the other.
In a merely forensic sense, it was indeed a battle of giants. In the whole field of American politics no man has equaled Douglas in the expedients and strategy of debate. Lacking originality and constructive logic, he had great facility in appropriating by ingenious restatement the thoughts and formulas of others. He was tireless, ubiquitous, unseizable. It would have been as easy to hold a globule of mercury under the finger’s tip as to fasten him to a point he desired to evade. He could almost invert a proposition by a plausible paraphrase. He delighted in enlarging an opponent’s assertion to a forced inference ridiculous in form and monstrous in dimensions. In spirit he was alert, combative, aggressive; in manner, patronizing and arrogant by turns.
Lincoln’s mental equipment was of an entirely different order. His principal weapon was direct, unswerving logic. His fairness of statement and generosity of admission had long been proverbial. For these intellectual duels with Douglas, he possessed a power of analysis that easily outran and circumvented the “Little Giant’s” most extraordinary gymnastics of argument. But, disdaining mere quibbles, he pursued lines of concise reasoning to maxims of constitutional law and political morals. Douglas was always forcible in statement and bold in assertion; but Lincoln was his superior in quaint originality, aptness of phrase, and subtlety of definition; and oftentimes Lincoln’s philosophic vision and poetical fervor raised him to flights of eloquence which were not possible to the fiber and temper of his opponent.
It is, of course, out of the question to abridge the various Lincoln-Douglas discussions of which the text fills a good-sized volume. Only a few points of controversy may be stated. Lincoln’s convention speech, it will be remembered, declared that in his belief the Union could not endure permanently half slave and half free, but must become all one thing or all the other. Douglas in his first speech of the campaign attacked this as an invitation to a war of sections, declaring that uniformity would lead to consolidation and despotism. He charged the Republicans with intent to abolish slavery in the States; said their opposition to the Dred Scott decision was a desire for negro equality and amalgamation; and prescribed his dogma of popular sovereignty as a panacea for all the ills growing out of the slavery agitation.