Alton, Illinois – October 15, 1858
“(Right and wrong) are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle,” Abraham Lincoln said in his concluding remarks of his seventh debate with current US Senator of Illinois, Steven Douglas. They were campaigning for a seat in the US Senate for Illinois. All seven of their debates had come back to whether or not slavery was right or wrong and whether it should be allowed to grow or be abolished. “The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
Lincoln was tired, mentally and physically from the long three-hour debate. This final debate drew the largest crowd, as Alton was on the banks of the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis. Citizens of Missouri, Iowa and Illinois had gathered to hear more from these two men. The newspapers had loved the debate style used in this campaign. And it was clear to Lincoln which papers were more Democratic or Republican. The Democratic papers would clean up and edit the transcription of Douglas’ remarks, while leaving errors in Lincoln’s quotes. On the other hand, republican leaning papers would do the same for Lincoln, while leaving errors in Douglas’ quotes.
A surprising endorsement by a Whig politician, which is the party Lincoln had been a member of previously, for Douglas proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for winning the US Senate seat. As Lincoln reflected on the excitement and national interest of their debates, Lincoln realized he wasn’t finished. While Douglas had doggedly fought with popular sovereignty rhetoric, which was saying that the popular vote of the people should be the deciding element for whether a state was free or slave, Lincoln was able to make Douglas make a stand that wasn’t popular with southern democrats. Lincoln asked Douglas to reconcile popular sovereignty with the recently decided Supreme Court case of Dred Scott vs. Sandford, which stated that the US Government couldn’t exclude slavery.
“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,” Douglas said at the Freeport Debate – the second of the seven debates. “… If the people are opposed to slavery they will elect representatives to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst.”
Lincoln learned that Douglas’ “Freeport Doctrine” made him unpopular in the south, were the majority of Democrats lived. This gave Lincoln hope that he would be able to beat Douglas in a popular vote for President of the United States.
The first step Lincoln took was to get the debates compiled into a book and then sell the book. Four printings were made and the fourth sold 16,000 copies. Then just as Douglas got help from a Whig, Lincoln got help from President Buchanan, who promoted his vice-president’s candidacy for the Democratic party. The northern and southern democrats were split and made it possible for Lincoln to win the election.
There were forces at work that were beyond Lincoln’s control, but with such a limited political resume, and a recent defeat of the very man he would likely face in the presidential race, Lincoln could have easily given up. He could have looked at the effort and struggle he went through to lose the US senate election and just said, “It’s too hard. I failed once, I will probably lose again. Why try?” Thankfully, he didn’t give up and did win in 1860. His fortitude to keep trying, his determination to see the opportunity despite the failed attempts, was the very mindset and character the US needed in a president that would get through the bloody civil war.
When you experience setbacks in your goals, you need to step back and evaluate what took place. Can you learn from it? Yes, always. Has it materially changed your view of the importance of your goal? If not, then you should see if what you learned will help you get closer to your goal.
Look back at your last set back and see how you handled it. Decide to handle your next setback more like Lincoln, and turn it into an advantage.