He had already faced and partly evaded this dilemma in his Springfield speech of 1857, but that was a local declaration and occurred before his Lecompton revolt, and the ingenious sophism then put forth had attracted little notice. Since that time things had materially changed. He had opposed Lecompton, become a party recusant, and been declared a party apostate. His Senatorial term was closing, and he had to look to an evenly balanced if not a hostile constituency for reelection. The Buchanan Administration was putting forth what feeble strength it had in Illinois to insure his defeat. His Democratic rivals were scrutinizing every word he uttered. He stood before the people to whom he had pledged his word that the voters of Kansas might regulate their own domestic concerns. They would tolerate no juggling nor evasion. There remained no resource but to answer Yes, and he could conjure up no justification of such an answer except the hollow subterfuge he had invented the year before.
[Sidenote] Lincoln to Asbury, July 31, 1858.
Lincoln clearly enough comprehended the dilemma and predicted the expedient of his antagonist. He had framed his questions and submitted them to a consultation of shrewd party friends. This one especially was the subject of anxious deliberation and serious disagreement. Nearly a month before, Lincoln in a private letter accurately foreshadowed Douglas’s course on this question. “You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a Territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it—though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power—he will instantly take ground that slavery cannot actually exist in the Territories unless the people desire it, and so give it protection by Territorial legislation. If this offends the South, he will let it offend them, as at all events he means to hold on to his chances in Illinois.” There is a tradition that on the night preceding this Freeport debate Lincoln was catching a few hours’ rest, at a railroad center named Mendota, to which place the converging trains brought after midnight a number of excited Republican leaders, on their way to attend the great meeting at the neighboring town of Freeport. Notwithstanding the late hour, Mr. Lincoln’s bedroom was invaded by an improvised caucus, and the ominous question was once more brought under consideration. The whole drift of advice ran against putting the interrogatory to Douglas; but Lincoln persisted in his determination to force him to answer it. Finally his friends in a chorus cried out, “If you do, you can never be Senator.” “Gentlemen,” replied Lincoln, “I am killing larger game; if Douglas answers, he can never be President, and the battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this.”
When Lincoln had finished his opening speech in the Freeport debate, and Douglas in his reply came to interrogatory number two, which Lincoln had propounded, he answered as follows: