Abraham Lincoln in Illinois
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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January 5, 1859

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On January 5, 1859, the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives met in joint session and selected Stephen A. Douglas for United States senator. It was the culmination of one of the most famous U. S. Senate races in history.

U.S. voters were not able to directly elect U.S. senators until the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution took effect in 1913. Until that date, most state legislatures selected their state's senators.

In 1858, the newly formed Republican Party chose Abraham Lincoln to be its candidate for U. S. senator. This was the first time in the history of the state that a major political party had nominated a candidate for the U. S. Senate before the legislative elections. Previous to 1858 candidates for U. S. Senate didn't receive party support but would seek support from legislators after the election. Running for his third term, Douglas knew he would have the support of most Democrat legislators.

Lincoln set the tone of the campaign by discussing slavery in accepting the Republican nomination. In what became one of his most famous speeches he declared, "A House divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."

Lincoln's job was not only to campaign against Douglas but also to campaign for the Republican candidates for the state House and Senate. Lincoln and Douglas campaigned vigorously around the state. They eventually met in a series of debates that focused almost exclusively on the national issue of slavery and gained for Lincoln the name recognition necessary to receive the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.

However, as this page from the 1859 House Journal (RS 600.201) demonstrates, Lincoln's performance wasn't enough to have him selected to the United States Senate. After the election Democrats still held a majority in the legislature. When the General Assembly convened in January 1859, it voted 54 to 46 to elect Douglas.

Points to Consider

How has the election of United States senators changed since the Lincoln-Douglas election of 1858?

What was the main issue of the 1858 election campaign?

Look up the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Why were the seven cities chosen as debate sites and which site is closest to where you live?

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