Why did Lincoln and Douglas debate? The state legislature chose senators then!

The Straight Dope, 13-Feb-1981

Dear Cecil:

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas traipsed back and forth across the state of Illinois conducting the famous "Lincoln-Douglas debates," supposedly in a campaign for election to the U.S. Senate. However, the constitutional provision in effect at the time provided that U.S. senators were to be elected by state legislatures. Not until passage of the 17th amendment in 1913 were senators elected by popular vote. So why were Lincoln and Douglas wasting their time and money traveling around speaking to voters when they could have more profitably occupied themselves offering bribes to members of the Illinois legislature? --Charles T., Chicago

Dear Charles:

Too bad you weren't around in 1858. I can just see Abe and Steve slapping their heads and saying, "I knew we were doing this the hard way."

But the debates weren't a complete waste of time. It's true that prior to 1913 U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures. But the members of those legislatures were themselves up for election every two or four years. In theory, therefore, a candidate for U.S. Senate might attempt to affect the outcome of the vote in the legislature by (a) securing his party's nomination, and then (b) convincing the public to elect his party's candidates to seats in the state house and senate.

In practice, however, it wasn't done. It was considered presumptuous for a party to nominate a senatorial candidate before obtaining the legislative majority necessary to get its man the job. It was also considered pretty pointless, at least from the party's standpoint. Under normal circumstances, the question of whom the legislature might choose for U.S. Senate was a minor issue, and nobody would vote for a party's candidates just because they promised to send so-and-so to Washington.

Even if the party did decide to nominate somebody ahead of time, getting the guy elected was bound to be a long shot. In Illinois, only a portion of the state senate was up for election at any given time, and the chances of significantly altering the legislature's balance of power at one crack were slim. For these reasons, Stephen Douglas's first senatorial "campaign," in 1846, consisted of traveling around the state buttering up the local party sachems in hopes they'd nominate him after the general election, which they did.

1858, though, was a special case. The Republicans, a relatively new party, were moving into a power vacuum at a time when sectional differences--chiefly over slavery--had submerged most purely local concerns. They were up against Douglas, a Democrat of national prominence who had made many enemies during his attempts to work out a solution to the slavery question. In Lincoln the Republicans knew they had an able spokesman for the emerging notion that the union could not remain indefinitely half slave and half free. With Lincoln as their standard-bearer, focusing on national concerns in public debate, the Republicans had an opportunity to increase their strength at all levels. In essence, they'd be making the local elections a referendum on slavery and other national issues.

It was an opportunity they lost no time in exploiting. On June 16, 1858, five months before the general election, they nominated Lincoln as their candidate for U.S. Senate. It was a bold, unprecedented strategy, but in the short run it didn't work. The Republicans didn't get enough their people elected to the state legislature, and Douglas won reelection to the Senate 54-46 in a joint session of the General Assembly held January 6, 1859.

Had senators been elected by direct popular vote, Lincoln might well have won; in one of the few statewide contests, Republicans took the state treasurer's post by 4,000 votes. In any event, the setback was only temporary. The groundwork had been laid for the Republican presidential victory of 1860, and, not incidentally, the Civil War.