On March 6, 1857, two days after President Buchanan was inaugurated, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision. With the help of several prominent abolitionists, Dred Scott, a slave, had presented a suit for his freedom on the grounds that after residing in a free state for a fixed period of years, he could not legally be restored to a state of slavery as per the terms of the Missouri Compromise.
In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney explained that as a slave, Scott had no rights under the Constitution, and thus no liberty to present a case in a Federal court. Further, since slaves were property, and since the Fifth Amendment spelled out that no person could be deprived of "life, liberty or property without due process of the law," the Federal government was powerless to prohibit the practice of slavery anywhere in the Union.
The Dred Scott decision proved a serious blow to the abolitionists, and a seemingly incontrovertible victory for the south. Further, it appeared to undermine the Kansas-Nebraska Act, for in the assertion that the federal government was powerless to deprive an individual of his property, the corresponding powerlessness of a state government seemed implicit. While Stephen Douglas desperately attempted to reconcile the Dred Scott decision with his principle of popular sovereignty, Lincoln prepared to face off against him in the 1858 Senate election.
Upon gaining the Republican nomination in July, Lincoln made a forceful speech at the Illinois statehouse in Springfield, speaking ominously of the task before the nation. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he famously remarked, continuing on to assert his belief that "the government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." At a certain point, Lincoln concluded, the nation must eventually become "all one thing, or all the other." Although at the time, his inflammatory speech was viewed as a rash political miscalculation that earned him no favor among moderates, it was also a prophecy that would set him apart as the eventual leader of the Union cause.
Douglas, although more influential in Washington than ever before, recognized the formidable challenge that Lincoln presented to him back in Illinois. "I shall have my hands full," Douglas admitted in sizing up his chances against Lincoln. "He is the strong man of his party...full of wit, facts, dates...and the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West. He is as honest as he is shrewd, and if I beat him my victory will be hardly won."
In an effort to improve his standing among the electorate, with little to lose and everything to gain, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates at various sites around the state. Douglas accepted, and the rest is history. Throughout the summer and early autumn, the two men met on seven separate occasions, making lengthy, impassioned speeches in front of large, enthusiastic crowds ranging upwards of fifteen thousand. After each debate, the press would relay the highlights back east, and readers nationwide followed the progress of the campaign as it unfolded.
Douglas and Lincoln formed a striking pair on the stage. The bellicose, stout Douglas stood a mere five feet, four inches, but possessed a booming bass voice that belied his stature. By contrast, the lanky Lincoln, at six feet, four inches, had an incongruously high-pitched delivery.
A microcosm of the national dialogue, the Lincoln-Douglas debates focused mainly on the question of slavery in the union. While Lincoln emphasized the moral aspect of the slave debate, Douglas elected to take a more conservative tack, sticking strictly to the legalities of slavery. In the second debate, at Freeport, Lincoln decided to attack Douglas on his own front.
As Lincoln reasoned, the Dred Scott decision had identified slaves as property. Since federal and state governments could not deprive a citizen of property without due process, the slavery question fell beyond the jurisdiction of all legislatures. Therefore, by decree of the Supreme Court as of March 6, 1857, the doctrine of popular sovereignty, as stated in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, was effectively to be null and void. How then, wondered Lincoln, could Douglas continue to support two seemingly contradictory positions?
Douglas's famous defense, known since as the Freeport Doctrine, was a crafty piece of political legwork. As the eminent example of democracy in action, went Douglas's explanation, popular sovereignty still applied and would continue to apply. Dismissing the court's opinion as irrelevant, Douglas continued: "It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a territory under the constitution. The people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations established by the local legislature."
By this logic, since an electorate possessed the power to choose their representatives, they could treat an election as a referendum and decree a majority mandate, whether in support of free soil or slavery. It wasn't up to the federal courts to decide the matter anyway, as only local enforcement could really determine the policies and practices of any confined domain. Rhetorically sound, and for practical purposes most likely correct, Douglas's words nevertheless rang false and menacing in the ears of the national media. Such a position, they argued, was for all intents and purposes an endorsement of mob rule over the rule of law.
In Illinois, however, where the frontier spirit continued to persist, such strong sentiments in support of states' rights were roundly applauded. Douglas was able to hold his positions despite the repeated challenges of an increasingly confident Lincoln. On Lincoln's part, the parry against slavery was made, but the thrust was withheld, so Lincoln managed to maintain the support of both abolitionists and moderates. He actually outpolled Douglas in the popular vote, but due to the gerrymandering of districts, Douglas was re-elected in the legislature by a vote of 54 to 46.
Despite his disappointment at another narrow defeat, Lincoln was correct to recognize the setback as "a slip and not a fall." He had emerged from the debates as a figure of national stature, his star rising as quickly as any other in the Republican Party. Because of his strong words against slavery, he had gained the special notice of the northeastern contingent, who were growing ever more inclined to press the cause of abolition, but disinclined to bring an overly radical voice to the national debate. As the weeks and months passed and the presidential election of 1860 grew ever closer, Lincoln's name was increasingly mentioned as a possible candidate.