College of LAS « Illinois

The Movement Toward Civil Rights

By Vernon Burton
Dr. Burton is a professor emeritus of history, sociology, and African American studies at U of I and is the author of Age of Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln

When Stephen A. Douglas learned that Lincoln would be his opponent for the U.S. Senate in 1858, he turned his considerable talents into discrediting him, beginning his attack on July 9, 1858, in Chicago. Citing Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, Douglas accused Lincoln of advocating civil war.

The following evening from the same Chicago balcony, Lincoln responded. After clarifying his “House Divided” statement, he became more animated as he refuted Douglas’s assertion that the United States government was “made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men.” Throwing caution to the wind, Lincoln claimed remarkable privilege for the Declaration of Independence and its implications about race and equality.

“My friends, I have detained you about as long as I desired to do, and I have only to say, let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position—discarding our standard that we have left us. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”

Douglas indignantly turned this back on Lincoln, proclaiming “this Chicago doctrine of Lincoln’s—declaring that the negro and the white man are made equal by the Declaration of Independence and by Divine Providence—is a monstrous heresy.”

That autumn, the Lincoln-Douglas debates presented Illinois and America with two visions of democracy: Stephen A. Douglas and the Democrats proffered white supremacy; Abraham Lincoln a more inclusive vision of liberty and democracy.

Lincoln’s vision, though, was not always evident. The northern territory of Illinois was friendly to Lincoln and the southern territory friendly to Douglas. Thus both candidates knew that it was the middle of the state, a more neutral ground that included old-line Whigs, that they had to cater to and win for electoral victory.

Both men also knew that no one who declared equality for blacks could be elected to statewide office. In 1848, more than two-thirds of Illinois voters had approved a constitutional amendment to exclude even free African Americans from the state, and even the Whig territory was staunchly opposed to abolition. Thus, Douglas found a ready audience when he began the first of the seven debates by denouncing Lincoln for his suggestion to declare “that all men are created equal.” The Republicans advised Lincoln to back away from his call for equality, and Lincoln did.

In the fourth debate at Charleston, Lincoln made statements that still haunt us today. In his meanest pronouncement on race, he denied that he favored civil rights for African Americans. Yet he kept his ground in declaring that the Declaration of Independence included all men in its claim for natural rights. Douglas’s plan of attack was to make certain that voters understood that those natural rights inevitably led to civil rights.

In the last three debates, Lincoln went on the offense and became bolder on African American rights. In Alton, Lincoln eloquently cast slavery as a moral issue.

Read the other monthly essays in this special commemorative series.

March 2009

Lincoln Bicentennial Events at U of I

October 13
Lincoln’s Rhetorical Worlds, Professor Michael Leff
November 11
Lincoln Lecture, Professor Robin Blackburn