What Was the Greatest Debate in History?

Graham Roumieu

James Jones, president, National Association of Parliamentarians

The Lincoln-Douglas debates are a testimony not only to sharp minds but to strong constitutions: Each one lasted more than three hours—and the men did it seven times!

J. Scott Wunn, executive director, National Speech and Debate Association

The 1896 Democratic Convention debate over whether to endorse the gold standard instead of “free silver” determined American monetary policy on and off until 1971. After hearing William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, the delegates adopted a pro-silver platform and nominated Bryan for president. He lost; gold won. (Nixon would later do what Bryan could not: eliminate the gold standard.)

Graham Roumieu

Johanna M. Hanink, associate professor of classics, Brown University

Medea and Jason’s argument in Euripides’s Medea is the original breakup blowout. When these two characters first traded digs on the Athenian stage in 431 b.c., they provided a model of sophistic rhetoric and a blueprint for a truly classic tradition: informing a partner, “It’s not me; it’s you.”

Tiffany Dupont, actor, Brian Banks

When I was growing up, it was Biggie versus Tupac. Also, if we’re being real about Titanic, there was definitely enough room for Jack on that piece of driftwood. But ultimately, “To be or not to be?” has always been the debate.

Reader Responses

Ed Kelley, Las Vegas, N.V.

The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate confirmed the power of television to influence political opinion. Kennedy won among TV viewers polled, while people who listened on the radio gave the edge to Nixon.

Preston Henske, Cos Cob, Conn.

The heated debate within NASA, in August 1968, about sending Apollo 8 to orbit the moon that December—considered by some to be the most daring decision NASA ever made. The flight set the stage for the moon landing the following July, and capped one of the most divisive years in American history.

Vincent Fiordalisi, East Norwich, N.Y.

The 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee. Clarence Darrow, who favored the right to teach evolution in public schools, faced off against William Jennings Bryan and his literal interpretation of the Bible as the word of God.

Graham Roumieu

Silvia Sommariva, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Were Ross and Rachel really on a break? Fifteen years after Friends ended, fans are still debating.

Stephanie Reddaway, Brooklyn, N.Y.

The dress debate of 2015. The way we were all tearing at one another’s throats over the colors of a dress really should have been the canary in the coal mine for our current political climate.

Rafael Castillo, San Antonio, Texas

One of the best debates in history was held in 1965 between the writer James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review, at the University of Cambridge. Before a sea of white faces, Baldwin maintained a steady, calm demeanor and pulverized Buckley, leading to a standing ovation. The topic, “The American Dream Is at the Expense of the American Negro,” is still hauntingly appropriate more than 50 years later.

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