Abraham Lincoln and the Negotiated Meaning of Democracy

“Little Giant as Gladiator,” political cartoon of Stephen Douglas, circa 1850s

Though Lincoln’s famous words from the Gettysburg Address, “a government of the people, by the people, for the people…” today resonate seamlessly with the language of the Constitution, Lincoln’s interpretation of the meaning of democracy was heavily contested in his day. As the Whig Party split between those who would allow the expansion of slavery into the territories and those who would not condone it, the Democratic Party held on a little longer under the principle of “popular sovereignty.” As Lincoln toured the country in debates with Stephen Douglas, his Democratic contender, he faced strong opposition from Douglas’ supporters, who contended that each individual state should decide whether or not slavery was permissible by a poll of its voting citizens. Lincoln had the audacity to challenge this principle at the foundation of Jackonian Democrats’ concept of liberty. He suggested that two [white] men did not have the democratic right to determine the fate of the third. Did Lincoln challenge the meaning of American democracy henceforth, or did he only try and slightly amend it? The following transcripts of Lincoln’s speeches and lesson plans suggests that on one level Lincoln’s legacy was his negotiation of the meaning of American democracy.

Teaching Resources:

Lincoln-Douglas Website
Lincoln-Douglas Lesson Plan

This website and lesson plan on teaching the Lincoln-Douglas debates encourage students to read the debates on context and understand the main conflicts of the 1850s. Focusing on print culture (maps and newspapers), the website and set of lesson plans introduce students to history as if they were potential voters. Though hands-on and fun, the lesson often imagines that most Americans at the time could vote. It is perhaps best paired with discussions on the intended limits to the electorate through the term “popular sovereignty.”

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: Popular Sovereignty and the Political Polarization over Slavery

Though the texts of the debates are not explored in as much detail, this excellent set of lesson plans on popular sovereignty frames Douglas’ concept of “democracy” in the racial, economic and political context of slavery. It follows well on earlier lesson plans related to the Mexican-American war and the legacy of debates over “free soil.”

Abraham Lincoln on the American Union: “A Word Fitly Spoken”

Lincoln’s rationale that upheld both the Republican Party and his differences with Douglas often centered on the “union.” What did Lincoln mean by the “union,” this unit asks?

African-American Experience and American Racial Attitudes

Discussions over Douglas’ concept of “popular sovereignty” brings to mind the meaning of democracy for so many white male Americans in the 1850s. This article introduces the subtext of race during the debates and election seasons.

Economic Development and Labor
Economic Development and Labor Video

This excellent set of internet clips chronicle the economic and racial underpinnings of political discussions about democracy. These are well paired with textual discussions on the Lincoln-Douglas debates themselves, or with discussions on what kind of coalition Lincoln was building through the construction of the Republicans.

Primary Sources:

First Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Ottawa, Illinois, 1858

Lincoln’s Speech in Reply to Douglas, at Springfield, 1858

Lincoln’s Speech in Reply to Douglas, at Alton, Illinois, 1858

Lincoln Discussing Popular Sovereignty in Chicago, 1858

Letter to Albert Hodges on slavery and morality, 1864:

House Divided Speech, June 1858: