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.