Flashbacks October 2004

The Great Debates

Two early twentieth-century articles recall one of America's most momentous electoral showdowns of all time—the Lincoln-Douglas debates

In the aftermath of the three Bush-Kerry debates, political analysts, pundits, and voters have been hashing out the implications of the two candidates' relative performances. The stakes in these debates—and in their effect on outcome of the election as a whole—are high. Such crucial matters as terrorism, Iraq, and the economy hang in the balance. High as these stakes are, however, they do not approach the significance of such legendary debates from this country's past as the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

Indeed, when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas challenged one another in seven debates across the state of Illinois, the ostensible purpose was to determine who would occupy the state's Senate seat for the next term. But over the course of their heated and eloquent exchanges, the two grappled with such momentous issues as the future of slavery, the preservation of the Union, and the very principles of the nation's founding. Many historians see their performance as the golden standard of American political discourse.

In "Lincoln's Rival," (February 1902), William Garrott Brown analyzed those historic debates, situating them in the larger context of American politics. At the time Lincoln and Douglas squared off, the question of slavery's future threatened to divide the nation. The delicate balance between free and slave states had recently been thrown off by the acquisition of new territories in the west, and a faction of Northern Democrats—led by Stephen Douglas in the Senate—had passed a law allowing each new territory to decide the slave question for itself. This enraged not only Southern Democrats, who had hoped to push pro-slavery constitutions onto the newly formed states and were worried that their "peculiar institution" was under threat, but also Northern anti-slavery forces, who envisioned the prospect of slavery creeping across the country.

In 1854 a new political party took shape to oppose the westward spread of slavery, and Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer and one-term Whig Congressman, emerged as its Illinois leader. In 1858 he challenged Douglas for his Senate seat, and the nation watched as the two engaged in a series of brilliant debates. In Brown's view, their encounters represented a flash point for one of the great American political rivalries—a clash not only of political factions but of ideologies.

Hamilton and Jefferson, Clay and Jackson, Douglas and Lincoln,—these have been the three great rivalries of American politics. The third was not the least. If it fell short of the others in variety of confrontments; if it was not so long drawn out, or accompanied with so frequent and imposing alignments and realignments of vast contending forces on a broad and national field, it surpassed them in the clearness of the sole and vital issue it involved, in a closer contact and measuring of powers, in the complete and subtle correspondence of the characters to rivals to the cause for which they fought.

Brown also described the dramatic differences between the personalities of the two men. The small, energetic, and buoyant Douglas had earned popularity and a secure Senate seat in recent years while Lincoln—brooding, melancholic, vulgar in speech, and awkwardly tall—had stagnated in the House of Representatives and became disillusioned with politics. Lincoln had all but resigned from the political world before the rise of the new Republican Party gave him one more opportunity to challenge his local rival. Brown described the scene as Lincoln and Douglas encountered one another for their first debate:

Elevated side by side on wooden platforms in the open air, thrown into relief against the low prairie skyline, the two figures take strong hold upon the imagination: the one lean, long-limbed, uncommonly tall; the other scarce five feet high, but compact, manful, instinct with energy, and topped with its massive head. In voice and gesture and manner Douglas was incomparably the superior, as he was, too, in the ready command of a language never, indeed, ornate or imaginative, and sometimes of the quality of political commonplace, but always forcible and always intelligible to his audience. Lincoln had the sense of words, the imagination, the intensity of feeling, which go to the making of great literature; but for his masterpieces he always needed time. His voice was high and strained, his gestures ungraceful, his manner painful, save in the recital of those passages which he had carefully prepared or when he was freed of his self-consciousness by anger or enthusiasm.

The debates included many of the types of attacks and distortions that are so often decried in today's political discourse. Douglas attacked Lincoln as an extremist aiming to incite civil war and abolish slavery throughout the country. Lincoln—portraying himself as a moderate in favor not of the abolition of slavery but of limiting it to the South—tried to paint Douglas as part of a Southern scheme to push slavery onto the entire country. In turn, Douglas accused Lincoln of shifting his stance to suit whatever region he found himself in, while Lincoln accused Douglas of giving misleading answers about the rights of states to ban slavery.

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Alex M. Parker is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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