Illinois can claim the distinction of the first Senate race between two black candidates. In 2004, Barack Obama defeated Alan Keyes with 70 percent of the vote. But we’ve also had some uniquely racist contests. The 1858 election, which was the most famous Senate race in American history and propelled Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, featured both candidates competing over who would do the best job of keeping blacks out of Illinois, and preventing intermarriage between the races.
The incumbent, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas of Chicago, was in a bind over the issue of slavery. Douglas was running for re-election in a free state, but he also was seeking the goodwill of Southern Democrats who could deliver him the party’s presidential nomination in 1860. He had authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed residents of a territory to vote on whether to allow slavery, insisting the issue should be determined by popular sovereignty.
The challenger, Republican Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, believed that the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which prohibited territories from banning slavery, would inevitably allow slave owners to bring their property into free states, including Illinois. He had sewn up the votes of abolitionists in northern Illinois. Douglas had the votes of slavery proponents in southern Illinois. The election would be decided by moderate ex-Whigs in the middle of the state. They hated slavery, but they hated blacks, too, and for the same reason: because both plantation owners and free blacks would undercut the prices for white labor. Just five years before, Illinois had passed a set of Black Laws forbidding African-Americans from settling in the state.
So Douglas ran an all-out racist campaign. He accused Lincoln of plotting to free slaves all over the United States, and allowing them to settle in Illinois.
During a speech at the state fair in Centralia, Douglas harped on what he called the “unfortunate odor” of the race he persistently referred to derisively and asked his listeners whether they were prepared to “to eat with, ride with, go to church with, travel with [Negroes], and in other ways bring Congo odor into their nostrils.”
Douglas also played on the ultimate fear of opponents of race-mixing: black men marrying white women. Before a debate with Lincoln in Galesburg, young women supporting Douglas wore dresses embroidered with the motto “White Men or None.” In Charleston, Douglasites carried a banner depicting a white man standing with a black woman, under the motto “Negro Equality.”
Lincoln, who was suspected of abolitionism by many moderates, was back-footed by Douglas’s accusations that he favored racial equality. At first, he tried to accuse Douglas of promoting race mixing by enabling the spread of slavery. Where slavery existed, Lincoln said, the white and black races mingled “to an alarming degree. The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision were both part of “a conspiracy to Africanize the American continent.”
Lincoln’s position was that blacks were entitled to the guarantees of the Declaration of Independence, which included the right to the fruits of their labor, but that such civil equality did not make them the social or political equals of whites. During the Charleston debate, he declared:
I am not nor have ever been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race…I will add to this I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman or child who is in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between Negroes and white men… I’ve never had the least apprehension that my friends would marry Negroes if there is no law to keep them from it but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, I given the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of the state, which forbids the marrying of white people with Negroes.
Douglas’s race-baiting helped him win that election. But of course Lincoln was the ultimate winner, and by freeing the slaves, he put America on a path to realizing everything he’d claimed to oppose in Charleston.