In the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine, there is a great article about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. While these debates were merely for an Illinois Senate seat, they affected the entire nation. The reason for this was changing technology. Allen C. Guelzo said that, “The combination of shorthand, the telegraph and the railroad changed everything.” These factors allowed the debates to be published quickly around the entire country and thus brought the debates into national headlines as these men faced off about the issue of the time: slavery.
The debates excited the population. In an era of no television or other diversions, this was high entertainment. “We were fed on politics in those days, and my twin sister and I would nto have missed the debate for all things in the world,” Harriet Middour, an Illinois housewife said in 1922 of the Freeport debate she attended. The debates were three hours long and at first, it seemed the more seasoned Douglas would prevail, but Lincoln gained confidence as the debates went on. The Charleston debate was his turning point and after that he only gained strength.
While Lincoln managed to win appeal, I think we all remember he lost this election. Senators in this period were chosen by the state legislature, not by popular vote, so this had to do with more than just votes. Guelzo recently went back and looked at actual votes and had this been a popular vote, Lincoln would have won. But these debates had put Lincoln in the national spotlight and made possible his 1860 presidential run as well as put slavery back in the spotlight.