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.

A daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln. Click image to expand.
A daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln

Cynics love to groan about presidential debates. The historic 1960 encounters between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, though now swathed in myth, gave rise to gripes that those political quiz shows weren't true debates but merely joint press conferences. And ever since general-election debates resumed in 1976, the same critique has appeared each cycle. The candidates, we're reminded, don't think spontaneously so much as regurgitate excerpts from their stump speeches or recite canned jokes. Self-important moderators degrade the discourse with gotcha questions, bullying candidates into irresponsible pledges or making them look evasive if they dare to stand their ground. Afterward, the usual cast of blowhards sets to work ignoring all but a few sound bites while dwelling on—and thus influencing—the question of who comes out ahead.

The Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debates of 1858—the seven three-hour-long contests conducted around Illinois by Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, the incumbent, and Republican Abraham Lincoln, the former congressman and challenger—stand in our collective memory as the beau ideal beside which today's events supposedly pale. In Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, historian Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College seeks to rescue these momentous clashes from their gilded place in our lore. As an exemplar of the gauzy distortions of hindsight, Guelzo cites late media scholar Neil Postman's pronouncement that where Lincoln-Douglas embodied a literary oratory and belonged to "the Age of Exposition," Nixon-Kennedy and subsequent made-for-TV clashes were nothing but creatures of "the Age of Show Business."

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Please, Mr. Postman. Scholars should know better than to traffic in such nostalgia; the Lincoln-Douglas contest, after all, provided plenty of entertainment, too. Guelzo's feat is that he does more than just resist the romanticized view of the event. He takes on with equal relish the counterclaim, widely accepted by academics, that the Lincoln-Douglas encounters were simply the trashy "political theater" of a pre-wired era. While some historians have argued that the turnout at debates like these reflected simply the robust energies of the party machines, which hustled out crowds and plied them with food and drink, Guelzo gives the debates their popular due.

He does so by locating them within the context of the 1858 senatorial campaign, enfolding them in a seamless, if sometimes heavy-going, narrative. He also grounds them in confident analyses of the period's political culture: the state of the parties, the prevalent style of campaigning and public speaking, and the issues that voters worried about—above all, the debate over slavery's expansion into the American West.

In 1858, America was approaching civil war. For more than a generation, a series of compromises between North and South—the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—had put off without resolving the question of whether the nation could remain "half-slave and half-free," as Lincoln put it in his "House Divided" speech while accepting the Republican Party's senatorial nomination early that summer. The core question was whether to permit slavery in newly acquired Western lands. As early as 1854, Douglas had championed the principle called "popular sovereignty," which let settlers of these new territories decide for themselves whether to legalize slavery. In response, Lincoln, who would soon leave the Whig Party for the fledgling Republican Party (formed in response to the Kansas controversy), emerged as one of Douglas' most prominent critics, a "free soiler" devoted to keeping slavery from the territories, going so far as to argue against his fellow Illinoisan that slavery was ultimately incompatible with the doctrine that all men are created equal.

For the Republicans to nominate such a fierce critic of slavery's expansion in 1858 was risky. Some national party leaders, such as newspaperman Horace Greeley of New York, threw their support to Douglas. Others worried that Lincoln's stance too closely resembled abolitionism—a dirty word in some parts—which they feared would alienate the Whigs whose votes might swing the election. Douglas, for his part, also had a fine line to walk. Having fallen out with President James Buchanan, a Democrat, for helping defeat Kansas' pro-slavery "Lecompton Constitution," the veteran senator had to rally Democratic loyalists without seeming to turn a blind eye to slavery's evils.

Although Douglas at first spurned the idea of debating, he soon agreed to square off against his lesser-known rival. Such an extensive joint "canvass" was unusual, especially since they were campaigning, strictly speaking, not for their own election but on behalf of their parties, seeking to elect state legislators who would in turn choose the next U.S. senator. Each needed to sweep into Springfield enough party-mates to guarantee victory when the new legislature convened. Thus the high season of the campaign, from August through the November election, became in effect a single, rolling roadshow of a debate.

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