Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas first met in 1834, as rising first-term representatives in the Illinois General Assembly. The two men were twenty-four and twenty-one, respectively. From the first, they had been healthy rivals, each pulling a considerable amount of weight within his own party. Additionally, Douglas had briefly courted Mary Todd before Lincoln won her hand.
Although three years Lincoln's junior, Douglas enjoyed a quicker ascent to national prominence. As Lincoln's last term in the state legislature expired, Douglas earned an appointment to the state supreme court. When Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846, Douglas enjoyed a promotion to senator in the bargain. By the early 1850s, Douglas enjoyed a reputation as one of the sharpest young orators and politicians in the Senate.
From the beginning, Douglas's position slavery stood in stark contrast to Lincoln's. Whereas Lincoln was wont to style slavery as a moral evil, Douglas was somewhat indifferent as to the morality of slavery, and far more concerned with the politics of the issue that was beginning to tear the nation apart at the seams.
Henry Clay, in his inimitable way, had once again stepped in to save the union with his Compromise of 1850, which provided for the admission of California as a free state, the organization of the New Mexico and Utah territories without mention of slavery, the abolishment of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and, most significantly, a powerful federal fugitive slave law designed to restore runaway slaves back to their masters. Lincoln, always a great admirer of Clay, personally approved of the Compromise of 1850. Two years later, upon Clay's death, Lincoln would praise him for his compassionate moderate politics in a public eulogy.
Therefore, it must have been especially galling to Lincoln when Douglas effectively nullified Clay's Missouri Compromise with the passage of his controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. In this piece of legislation, the original line dividing free states from slave states was ignored, since each territory seeking entry into the union was empowered to decide the question of slavery for themselves under the system of popular sovereignty.
Douglas was primarily motivated to advance the doctrine of popular sovereignty in order to garner support for quite another project. Plans for the transcontinental railroad were being laid out, and there was some debate as to whether the eastern terminus of the track should be at Chicago or New Orleans. Wishing to improve the lot of his home state, and recognizing the necessity of the railroad to the industrial growth of the middle west, Douglas threw the Kansas-Nebraska Act into the ring in hopes that he could earn southern votes for his Chicago campaign. In the short term, this proved to be a brilliant political move for Douglas, as he succeeded in securing the railroad for the north and won the approval and support of the south in one fell swoop. However, in the longer view, Douglas's politicking would prove to be his own undoing, and indeed, the undoing of the union.
At this time, Lincoln was not an abolitionist per se, but he was firmly committed to the containment of slavery within the United States. Though he was morally opposed to slavery, he had no wish to upset the balance of the union by campaigning too harshly against the rights of the southern states. His approach had always been to campaign for state-sponsored repeal rather than the force of federal legislation. There can be no disputing that Lincoln accepted the existence and continuation of slavery in the southern states during much of the 1850s. However, with the introduction of Douglas's popular sovereignty, Lincoln aired his fears that the African slave trade would presently be revived, turning America into vast slave empire.
In an effort to prevent this scenario from occurring, Lincoln decided to re- enter politics, with the clearly defined goal of assailing Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act. Originally he had no intention of campaigning directly, but after a powerful speech at Peoria, he was elected once again to the Illinois General Assembly, and found himself as a potential candidate for a Senate seat.
After gaining the support of the Whigs, Lincoln resigned his newly won seat in the state legislature and made a concerted push for Senate election. Although the balloting was close, Lincoln again came up short at the hands of his Democrat opposition, and found himself sidelined once again. This was a keen disappointment for Lincoln, and once again he retreated into the confines of his legal practice, his political future uncertain at best.
Despite Lincoln's loss, the national tide against Douglas was beginning to rise. Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act was fiercely opposed in the Senate by politicians of national reputation such as Salmon Chase of Ohio, William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. After Sumner aired a series of sharp criticisms against several supporters of popular sovereignty, he was attacked on the Senate floor by Preston Brooks of South Carolina. The nation was beginning to come apart at the seams.
Nowhere was the tension over popular sovereignty more palpable than in Kansas, where Douglas's legislation was being put to the test. With the gauntlet laid down for a shouting match, free-soilers and slavers alike rushed in to settle Kansas in hopes of controlling state policy. Rival delegations quickly emerged, with a pro-slavery government assembling in Lecompton and a rival free- soil government assembling in Topeka. Then, in May of 1856, a group of slavers sacked the free-soil stronghold of Lawrence. Throughout the summer and into the fall, open civil war raged in Kansas between the rival factions. In one of the most significant incidents, a virulent abolitionist named John Brown hacked five slavers to death at Pottawatomie Creek. Popular sovereignty was quickly degenerating into anarchy.
Out of the increasingly heated debate over the slavery question, a new political party emerged in time for the 1856 presidential elections. Called the Republicans, they were an amalgamation of various factions united by their opposition to the spread of slavery. For president, they nominated the western explorer John C. Fremont on a platform of expansionism and opposition to popular sovereignty. At the convention, Lincoln himself received a significant portion of votes for vice president, but slipped off the list on succeeding ballots due to his regional obscurity.
Lincoln campaigned actively on Fremont's behalf, and the Republicans gained significant support particularly in the Northeast. However, certain southern politicians threatened secession in the event of a Fremont win, and a moderate electorate eventually swept the more conservative Democrat, James Buchanan, into office.
By early 1857, free-soilers outnumbered slavers in Kansas, but slavers still controlled the political machine. Like President Franklin Pierce before him, Buchanan supported the entry of Kansas as a slave state. However, Douglas united with a block of Republican voters to prevent this prospect, insisting on a proper application of popular sovereignty. A series of corrupt and inconclusive statewide referendums ensued, and eventually the issue was tabled in the face of continued bloodshed. Ultimately, Kansas would be admitted to the union in January of 1861 as a free state. But by then, the very state of the union itself had been called into question.