The Lincoln-Douglas debates unplugged.

The history behind current events.
April 7 2008 1:44 PM

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates Unplugged

A new book strips away the nostalgia around this classic encounter.

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Guelzo carefully documents how each of the seven face-offs assumed a slightly different character. At each stop, Lincoln and Douglas replied to the other's charges from previous debates and tailored their remarks to local audiences, whether Republican, Democratic, or Whig. They also indulged in ad hominem attacks, slung charges of dirty dealing, and distorted the other's positions. The fierceness of these exchanges as Guelzo presents them is bracing to behold—and, for what it's worth, lends needed perspective to the dire claims we've been hearing lately that this year's presidential campaign is uncommonly divisive.

The most jarring of these appeals are the frankly racist ones. Douglas demonized Lincoln as a supporter of full equality for blacks—not just "natural" rights such as freedom from slavery—and brandished his own white supremacist bona fides. Between debates, he played to the ugliest stereotypes, ranting, as one paper noted, about "the unfortunate odor of the black man [and] asked if his audience wished to eat with, ride with, go to church with, travel with and in other ways bring Congo odor into their nostrils." Lincoln, courting Whig voters, took pains to qualify his support for racial equality. "I am not nor have ever been in favor or making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people," he said in one debate, at the start of what Guelzo calls "a disgraceful catalog of all the civil rights he, fully as much as Douglas, believed blacks could be routinely deprived of." These moments drive home just how remote from our own time the political culture of the 1850s was. They destroy, too, the rosy picture of the Lincoln-Douglas contests as an exercise in elevated rational-critical discourse.

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Yet neither the demagoguery nor the grandstanding nor the cheap shots eclipsed the debates' substance. On the contrary, Guelzo shows how the candidates worked over the whole complex of slavery-related issues, in all their difficulty—not with the language and rigor of philosophers but with sophisticated reasoning nonetheless. Indeed, the main flaw of Guelzo's book, its eye-rubbing density, results not from any clotting in his prose, which is supple, but simply from the highly intricate nature of the candidates' arguments. (Guelzo includes scorecards to help his readers keep track.)

How audiences responded to these extended presentations, Guelzo concedes, is hard to know. But he suggests that Douglas' slender victory in November had a Pyrrhic quality. Lincoln, after all, went on to earn a national reputation while Douglas muddied his own defense of popular sovereignty enough to harm him in the South two years later—when the Lincoln-Douglas rematch (sans debates) put the free soiler in the White House.

Guelzo's conclusion, rooted in the ideas of Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel, interprets the debates as a triumph of Lincoln's moral vision over Douglas' arid proceduralism. It's presented as something of an afterthought and doesn't adequately close his stirring tale. He might have been better off drawing out a claim that he leaves implicit, almost untapped: that down-and-dirty politics and serious argument about burning issues need not exist in separate realms.

Indeed, it's worth considering whether fruitful clashes about political ideas are most likely to occur not despite an environment of raucous and sometimes ugly campaigning but becauseof it. The constant canvassing of Lincoln and Douglas around Illinois in the fall of 1858, their growing irritation with each other and desire to demarcate their differences, produced plenty of coarseness and heat. But the very intensity of their engagement seems to have been necessary to generate a light about slavery and its expansion that, among its other effects, helped demonstrate the fitness of a newly prominent and battle-tested one-time congressman for the presidency two years later.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, worked at the New Republic in the early 1990s as an intern, as managing editor, and as acting editor.

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