If a stranger who knew nothing of the speakers and their party associations had heard the two men on that occasion, he would have concluded that one was strongly in favor of slavery and the other was not opposed to it.
Their only disagreement was as to slavery in the Territories, and that was more apparent than real. Lincoln contended for free soil through the direct action of the general government. Douglas advocated a roundabout way that led up to the same result. His proposition, which he called “popular sovereignty,” was to leave the decision to the people of the Territories, saying he did not care whether they voted slavery up or voted it down. That was a practical, although indirect declaration in favor of free soil. The outcome of the contests in Kansas and California showed that at that game the free States with their superior resources were certain to win. The shrewder slaveholders recognized that fact, and their antagonism to Douglas grew accordingly. They deliberately defeated him for the Presidency in 1860, when he was the regular candidate of the Democratic party, by running Breckenridge as an independent candidate. Otherwise Mr. Douglas would have become President of the United States. Out of a total of 4,680,193 votes, Mr. Lincoln had only 1,866,631. The rest were divided between his three antagonists.
As between Lincoln and Douglas, who together held the controlling hand, the slaveholders preferred Lincoln, against whom they had no personal feeling, while they knew that his policy was no more dangerous to their interests than the other man’s, if faithfully adhered to and carried out. Besides that, by this time many of them had reached that state of mind in which they wanted a pretext for secession from the Union. Lincoln’s election would give them that pretext while Douglas’s would not.
On a boat that carried a portion of the audience, including the writer, from Alton to St. Louis, after the debate was over, was a prominent Missouri Democrat, afterwards a Confederate leader, who expressed himself very freely. He declared that he would rather trust the institutions of the South to the hands of a conservative and honest man like “Old Abe,” than to those of “a political jumping-jack like Douglas.” The most of the other Southern men and slaveholders present seemed to concur in his views.
It is a fact that a good many of the Anti-Slavery leaders living outside of Illinois, and a good many of those living within it, wanted the Republicans of that State to let Douglas go back to the Senate without a contest, believing that he would be far more useful to them there than a Republican would be. It is not improbable that enough of the Illinois Republicans took that view of the matter, and helped to give Douglas the victory in what was a very close contest.
A portion of Douglas’s speech was a spirited defense of his “squatter sovereignty” doctrine against the denunciations of members of his own political party, in the course of which he gave President Buchanan a savage overhauling. It showed him to be a master of invective.