In 1854, US Congressman Stephen Douglas pushed through a legislative bill known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The bill reversed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which limited the expansion of slavery in territories that applied for statehood. Douglas’s bill would leave the decision of legalizing slavery in new states up to the voters of that state. The idea of states making such decisions for themselves without the approval of the federal government became known as popular sovereignty or states’ rights.

The reversal of the Missouri Compromise stirred Lincoln’s ire because of its potential for allowing the spread of slavery. He ran for the United States Senate as a member of the Whig Party, but when he saw his support dwindling, he withdrew from the race and asked his supporters to endorse fellow Whig Lyman Trumbull. Lincoln’s selfless act won the Senate seat for Trumbull and gave the Whigs a majority in the Senate.

Lincoln was becoming disillusioned with the direction the Whig Party was taking. Its resolve to oppose the expansion of slavery seemed to be weakening. Lincoln worked with like-minded politicians from the Whig Party and other political parties to form the Republican Party: a political party united initially in opposition to the spread of slavery. It would later become known as the more conservative of the two major political parties in the United States.

Their first convention was held on 6 July 1854. Four years later, in 1858, Lincoln was nominated as the Republican candidate for the United States Senate. It was just after the nomination that he gave one of his most famous speeches in which he stated ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’. It was also the campaign in which the famous Lincoln–Douglas Debates took place.

Stephen Douglas was a Democrat from Illinois who had enjoyed a lengthy career in politics until he was challenged by a country lawyer named Lincoln. In 1858, Douglas was the incumbent Democratic candidate for the Illinois seat in the United States Senate. During his campaign he found the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, following him about the state. Within a day or two of an appearance by Douglas, Lincoln would arrive and respond to whatever statements Douglas had made. Finally, in frustration, Douglas agreed to a series of seven debates which have become famous as the Lincoln–Douglas Debates.

Douglas won by a narrow margin, holding his Senate seat until his death in 1861. But the participation of candidates in public debates has become an expected part of any presidential campaign, and is yet another example of Lincoln’s keen political instincts. Another came a year after the election when he purchased a newspaper called the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger. Most of the 130,000 German Americans in Illinois tended to vote Democrat. Lincoln realized that a German-language publication could garner support for the Republican Party.

Lincoln would later apply talents for political strategy in his effort to become the Republican candidate for president of the United States in 1860. ‘The Rail Candidate’ (as his supporters knew him) made use of the legend of his frontier days and his reputation as a moderate on the slavery issue, to be voted the Republican nominee for president. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was split over the issues of slavery and popular sovereignty. This resulted in two Democratic candidates for president: Stephen Douglas for the Northern Democrats and John C. Breckinridge for the Southern Democrats.

Lincoln saw the advantage of a fractured Democratic Party. He ordered his campaign staff to carry out a paper campaign, using brochures, posters, leaflets and a pamphlet about Lincoln’s life, rather than actively campaigning. The Democratic vote was split between Douglas and Breckinridge, with 1.4 million for Douglas and 850,000 for Breckinridge. Lincoln’s name did not appear on the ballots in ten of the fifteen slave states. Yet he received 1.9 million votes. On 6 November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the first Republican president of the United States.

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