What is a Lincoln-Douglas Debate? (with pictures)

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated the future existence of slavery when they battled for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858.
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated the future existence of slavery when they battled for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858.

A Lincoln-Douglas debate, also called an LD, is a style of debate format popular in competitions and occasionally the political arena. Most center on values for one or more moral or ethical issues. The debate style is named for the famous American senatorial race debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

In 1858, the Illinois candidates for senate were Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas. The two agreed to a series of debates in various parts of the state, largely focusing on the immensely controversial slavery situation in regards to Illinois and the United States. These debates are considered to be some of the greatest in the nation’s history, and are often considered contributing factors to Lincoln’s presidential election, despite losing the senate campaign to Douglas. The original format was an hour long speech by one candidate, an hour and a half rebuttal, and then a final half hour response by the original speaker. Today’s variation is markedly different, with a rigid set of procedural rules.

Slavery was the main focus of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Slavery was the main focus of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

A modern Lincoln-Douglas debate is divided into seven sections, closely regulated by time allowed. The issues debated are generally chosen to allow strong support or criticism through use of inductive logic and good debate tactics. The format is usually closely followed, but some exceptions do occur in certain tournaments or contests.

In a LD debate, the person speaking in support of the issue, called the Affirmative, is allowed a six minute segment to construct their argument. The opposition, or Negative, then has three minutes to ask questions of the affirmative, followed by seven minute to state the Negative case and argue against the Affirmative. The Affirmative has three minutes to cross-examine, then is allowed four minutes to rebut, using evidence from both their argument and the Negative argument. The Negative is allowed a final six minutes to rebut, summarize and plead for support from the judges, followed by a similar three minute period for the Affirmative. Including preparation time, the entire debate round takes approximately 45 minutes.

Abraham Lincoln lost the Illinois senate race, but went on to become president.
Abraham Lincoln lost the Illinois senate race, but went on to become president.

The Lincoln-Douglas debate format is most often used by high school debate teams, and a variety of tournaments exist on local and high school levels. The format also comes up occasionally in professional politics as well. Critics of the format suggest that, like standardized testing, the outcome of the debates is often determined by how well the participants construct a logical argument rather than how useful their solution may be. Critics argue that for that reason, the Lincoln-Douglas debate style is better left to competitions where learning a logical structure is an important educational tool, rather than real-world politics where solutions must not be only logical, but also realistic.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a InfoBloom writer.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a InfoBloom writer.

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Discussion Comments

anon108273

I love this debate. I'm actually doing this debate for my history fair project.

anon56632

i love this for of debating.

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    • Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated the future existence of slavery when they battled for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858.
      Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated the future existence of slavery when they battled for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858.
    • Slavery was the main focus of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
      Slavery was the main focus of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
    • Abraham Lincoln lost the Illinois senate race, but went on to become president.
      Abraham Lincoln lost the Illinois senate race, but went on to become president.