The Lincoln-Douglas debates during the Illinois Senate campaign of 1858 were tedious, long-winded, and repetitious. Both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas spun out elaborate conspiracy theories alleging nefarious plots by obscure politicians. The candidates were outraged by each other’s “infamous” accusations. Douglas was scandalized by the charge that he was part of a sinister conspiracy to spread slavery nationwide; Lincoln dismissed the claim that his candidacy was part of a shady deal engineered to make up for his failure to win the Senate seat four years earlier. But both candidates ignored each other’s indignant denials. They called each other liars. They both used racist epithets, sprinkling their remarks with the “n” word. On important issues they were often evasive and deliberately misleading. Douglas repeatedly distorted Lincoln’s positions; Lincoln often drew apocalyptic inferences from Douglas’s arguments, claiming they would make slavery permanent by making it morally acceptable. But no matter how poorly Lincoln or Douglas performed, their operatives tried to make sure that an intensely partisan press would report only that their preferred candidate had inflicted a devastating defeat upon his opponent.
Conspiracy-mongering, race-baiting, and spin-doctoring were not what John McCain had in mind when he challenged Barack Obama to a series of “town meetings” to debate the issues in this year’s presidential election campaign. Nor are they what Obama’s campaign manager intended when he responded by proposing a “format that is less structured” based on the Lincoln- Douglas debates. What made that model so attractive was the prospect of a serious discussion of issues and principles rather than a display of personalities and propaganda.
It’s not a complete fantasy. There was much more to the Lincoln-Douglas debates than base accusations and false outrage. Lincoln and Douglas were skillful stump speakers. There are moments of stunning rhetorical brilliance spread throughout their exchanges. And they got better as they went along. The diversionary scuffling over long-forgotten backroom deals diminished somewhat as Lincoln and Douglas focused more intently on the great issue of their day, slavery, clarifying their own positions and the differences that separated them.
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had been arguing politics since they arrived in central Illinois within months of each other in the 1830s, but not until 1854 did their disagreement center on the explosive issue of slavery and its expansion. Lincoln was a free-soiler; he believed that slavery should be excluded from the western territories because it violated the principle of fundamental human equality. Douglas, defiantly neutral on the morality of slavery, advocated popular sovereignty, which would allow settlers in the territories to decide for themselves whether they wanted slaves.
That argument would never have erupted had it not been for a controversial piece of legislation—the Kansas-Nebraska Act—that Douglas, as senator from Illinois, maneuvered through Congress in 1854. Slavery had been banned from the Nebraska territory under the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, but Douglas’s law repealed the sacred compromise, split the territory in two …