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They Soared Above the Din

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

edited by Rodney O. Davis andDouglas L. Wilson
Knox College Lincoln Studies Center/University of Illinois Press, 392 pp., $35.00

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, and organized both halves—Kansas and Nebraska—on the principle of popular sovereignty. Douglas hoped that in shifting the slavery question to the territories he would remove a disruptive issue from national politics. But far from calming everybody down, the Kansas-Nebraska Act made people more upset than ever. Back in Illinois it brought Abraham Lincoln out of semiretirement and into antislavery politics for the first time. The two men argued on and off for four years and in 1858 Lincoln entered the race for the US Senate hoping to unseat Douglas.

Their seven famous exchanges were only a small part of the 1858 campaign, and they were not what any of us today would recognize as debates. One candidate would open with an hour-long speech, the other would follow with a ninety-minute rejoinder, after which the first candidate would return to the platform for a final thirty-minute solo. There were no moderators, but there were lively and vocal audiences. Although the candidates sometimes put questions to one another, there was little give-and-take. It was more like twenty-one speeches in a row.

They wore themselves out, Douglas especially. Focusing their attention on the crucial swing counties of central Illinois, they crisscrossed the state giving hundreds of speeches over several months. They spoke from sun-drenched platforms in the scorching August heat and as fall came they spoke against cold, wet winds. By the end of the campaign Douglas was a wreck, his thunderous voice shrunken to a hoarse whisper by bronchitis, alcohol, and sheer exhaustion. Lincoln held up better, in part because his spirits lifted as his own performance improved. And although Douglas managed to retain his Senate seat, the debates made Lincoln nationally famous and they put him on the short list of 1860 presidential possibilities, while at the same time they dispelled the illusions of eastern Republicans that Douglas could be wooed to their party.

This is the story most historians recite and in Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, Allen C. Guelzo, a professor of history at Gettysburg College, retells it in more detail and with more thorough research than anyone else. He recreates the drama of each debate and gives a masterful account of the ins and outs of Illinois politics. Along the way he fills in much of the background, making sense of the baroque charges and countercharges, evaluating the conspiracy theories, and identifying the obscure politicians, the reporters, and the wire-pullers who played supporting roles in the unfolding theatrics. The book includes mini-histories of newspaper publishing, of public speaking, and of each of the towns in which the candidates debated. It’s a powerful story, deftly told. Guelzo’s prose has an old-fashioned urbanity, slightly pompous but also wry and detached. He has a keen ear for the telling anecdote and he knows how to step back and let the quotations make his point. The book exudes a cosmopolitan awareness of the distortions and corruptions of everyday politics, but Guelzo never lapses into cynicism. He knows that beneath all the hoopla serious issues were in play.


But what of the larger meaning of the debates? One way to answer the question is to emphasize their historical significance. Lincoln and Douglas attracted large crowds of attentive partisans who put sharp questions to the candidates, shouted out their support, or hooted in opposition. At each new town they were greeted by supporters waving banners and shouting slogans. This broad and often raucous engagement with the issues reflects a popular political culture that has largely disappeared from American public life.

But some aspects of the Lincoln-Douglas debates were altogether new, foreshadowing things to come. Never before had major newspapers around the country sent reporters to cover a race for the Senate in a far-off state. Even more significant, the transcripts of the debates were published in full—in the Chicago papers within thirty-six hours, a day or two later in New York and elsewhere. It was Douglas who attracted so much attention from the press; but Lincoln, confident about his performance, gathered the transcripts in a scrapbook, made a few minor corrections, and republished them in time for the 1860 presidential campaign. Their wide and unprecedented circulation allowed the Lincoln-Douglas debates to enter swiftly into national mythology as a highpoint of American political rhetoric.1

Guelzo appreciates all of this but he also reflects a school of political theorists who discern in the debates a larger struggle for the soul of the nation. They believe that Lincoln gave liberal democracy a moral core, that he rescued the republic from the amoral alternative offered by Stephen Douglas, for whom democracy was a mere “process.” In some versions of this argument liberalism itself is the problem because it is said to be so devoid of any intrinsic conception of the greater good that it must import its principles from some alternative political or moral tradition. This is a familiar charge leveled by communitarians such as the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, and it is hardly surprising that Guelzo invokes Sandel’s critique of the “procedural republic.”2 Lincoln and Douglas were fighting for two “radically different notions of what democratic politics really is,” Guelzo writes. For Douglas democracy was a procedure, for Lincoln it was a principle.

Guelzo’s true inspiration, however, is the political theorist Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided (1959), echoes of which reverberate throughout Lincoln and Douglas. Jaffa, a student of Leo Strauss, described Lincoln as that rarest of men who could grasp the transcendent truths of natural law and put them to work infusing democracy with a moral purpose. Guelzo says exactly the same thing. Lincoln was a “teacher of teachers,” Jaffa wrote; “our greatest preceptor,” says Guelzo. Jaffa’s Lincoln understood as early as 1838 that it was his destiny to free the slaves; Guelzo’s Lincoln took the presidential oath already intending to abolish slavery. Jaffa anointed Lincoln a “political savior,” not unlike “that other Messiah.” Guelzo sees Lincoln in similarly messianic terms, hence the subtitle of his 1999 biography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.

And like all true redeemers, Lincoln was often alone in his mission. In his 2003 study Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Guelzo briskly dismissed the possibility that others besides Lincoln were important in freeing the slaves. The abolitionists? Dogmatic extremists, Guelzo declared, and Lincoln hated them. Even more abruptly Guelzo waved away the rapidly accumulating body of evidence that fugitive slaves and black soldiers played a critical part in their own emancipation. And what about the abolition of slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment, which Lincoln supported but which originated in Congress and was ratified by the states? A mere “coda” to Lincoln’s proclamation, Guelzo writes in a recent essay. In his new book Guelzo says that during the 1850s “the United States turned the principles of self- government into a natural morality,” and explains how it happened by quoting from Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism (2003): “It was Lincoln who did this.” He alone replaced Douglas’s vacuous conception of democracy with a politics made moral by timeless natural law.

Guelzo sees evidence to support his interpretation within the debates themselves, summaries of which form the core of his new book. In the hands of a less gifted writer these pages could easily have collapsed into dreary repetition, but Guelzo’s summaries are never dull. They are not entirely accurate, however. He has tended in the past to put his own opinions into Lincoln’s mouth. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President opens with a highly misleading passage suggesting that Lincoln hated Thomas Jefferson. Guelzo has repeatedly claimed that Lincoln loathed antislavery radicals, an absurd simplification of a complicated set of relationships. It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is Guelzo, not Lincoln, who doesn’t much care for Jefferson or the abolitionists.

Guelzo’s summaries of the Lincoln-Douglas debates reveal a similar impulse to project his views onto the text. Here’s the opening of his summary of Lincoln’s rejoinder to Douglas at the Quincy debate:

  1. 1

    All the quotations from the debates in this essay are taken from the important new edition edited by Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson under the auspices of the Knox College Lincoln Studies Center. Though based on the same basic transcripts that Lincoln and most subsequent scholars have used, Davis and Wilson have corrected the irregular paragraphing, arbitrary punctuation, and occasionally garbled transcriptions in the originals. The result is a definitive new edition that is far more readable and almost certainly more reliable.

  2. 2

    Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 21–24.

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