What captivated Brown most was the lofty level to which the discourse frequently rose, as the two men debated the fundamental principles underlying the American experiment. The question with which both grappled was whether slavery could exist permanently as an American institution, and whether it was compatible with or antithetical to the nation's core beliefs. In these matters, Brown felt, Lincoln was the more persuasive of the two.
It was Lincoln who took the aggressive on principles. A famous paragraph of his speech before the convention which nominated him began with the words: "'A House divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." That was a direct challenge to Douglas and his whole plan with slavery, and throughout the debate, at every meeting, the doctrine of the divided house was attacked and defended. "But why," cried Douglas, "cannot this government go on as the fathers left it, as it has gone on for more than a century?" Lincoln met him on that ground, and had the better of him discussing what the fathers meant concerning slavery. They did not mean, he argued, to leave it alone to grow and spread; for they prohibited it in the Northwest Territories; they left the word "slave" out of the Constitution, in the hope of a time when there should be no slaves under the flag.
Two years later, in "Recollections of Lincoln" (February 1904), Henry Villard, who had watched the debates as a correspondent on the campaign trail, offered a less scholarly, more journalistic account. Like Brown, Villard noted the disparity in speaking styles of the two candidates, suggesting that in manner and tone Douglas was a better speaker.
The Democratic spokesman commanded a strong, sonorous voice, a rapid, vigorous utterance, a telling play of countenance, impressive gestures, and all the other arts of the practiced speaker. As far as all external conditions were concerned, there was nothing in favor of Lincoln. He had a lean, lank, indescribably gawky figure, an odd-featured, wrinkled, inexpressive, and altogether uncomely face. He used singularly awkward, almost absurd up-and-down and sidewise movements of his body to give emphasis to his arguments. His voice was naturally good, but he frequently raised it to an unnatural pitch.
Villard noted, however, that due to the substance of the position he was advocating, Lincoln was better able to connect with the crowd.
The unprejudiced mind felt at once that, while there was on the one side a skillful dialectician and debater arguing a wrong and weak cause, there was on the other a thoroughly earnest and truthful man, inspired by sound convictions in consonance with the true spirit of American institutions. There was nothing in all Douglas's powerful effort that appealed to the higher instincts of human nature, while Lincoln always touched sympathetic chords. Lincoln's speech excited and sustained the enthusiasm of his audience to the end.
So thoroughly did Lincoln incite the crowd's passions, in fact, that at one venue, when the debate concluded, his supporters stormed the stage and carried him off on their shoulders.
Two stalwart young farmers rushed on the platform, and, in spite of his remonstrances, seized and put him on their shoulders and carried him in that uncomfortable posture for a considerable distance. It was really a ludicrous sight to see the grotesque figure holding frantically to the heads of his supporters, with his legs dangling from their shoulders, and his pantaloons pulled up so as to expose his underwear almost to his knees.
In the end, though Lincoln was able to command mass appeal, Douglas was elected by the legislature, and retained his seat in the Senate until his death. Boosted by the prominence of the race, however, Lincoln received the Republican Party's nomination for the presidency in 1860, and went on to lead his party to its first Presidential victory. Despite their much-heralded rivalry, the two remained friends, and Douglas stood by Lincoln at his inauguration.