When People Hated the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

No one’s happy with the state of the presidential debates. Democrats are annoyed about the process. Independents are annoyed that they’re often shut out. Republicans are annoyed about, well, everything. And while no one agrees on how to fix these problems, everyone knows what the platonic ideal of a political debate is: the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In 2011, Newt Gingrich explicitly called for bringing them back.

This is probably not a good idea. Those debates were three hours long, mostly devoted to the single subject of slavery, and would likely be stultifyingly dull to modern ears. (No one even asked what they’d use as Secret Service code names.) Also, the good guy lost.

Besides, as Newton Minow and Craig Lamay note in Inside the Presidential Debates, the showdowns were not as popular at the time as one might imagine today. First, a little background:

They weren’t Lincoln’s first turn on the dais. In the mid-19th century, it was actually common for presidential debates to be held between surrogates, rather than candidates—since before modern transportation and telecommunication, there was no way for the candidates to reach a wide audience. Lincoln’s first presidential debate actually came in 1836, when he was just 27 years old, and he squared off against Senator John C. Calhoun—the avatar of state’s rights and, at the time, twice as old as Lincoln and already a former vice president and secretary of war. (Imagine the genteel, Yale-educated South Carolinian’s thoughts about having to debate the spindly, hayseed, autodidact Lincoln.) Lincoln stood for the Whig Party that year  John Calhoun.* He debated Calhoun again in 1840—this time in support of the successful campaign of William Henry Harrison—and 1844. He also debated on behalf of Republican John C. Frèmont in 1856.

So even though Lincoln was a familiar presence on a debate stage by the time he faced Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate race, the debates were not well-received by all of the public. Prior to the 17th Amendment, senators were still chosen by state legislatures, rather than by direct ballot. Lincoln and Douglas traveled to different parts of the state in support of the candidates for the state legislature who were pledged to their support. Minow and Lamay note that debating for the public therefore struck some observers as a crass and vulgar violation of constitutional norms. The Washington Union thundered, “The whole country is disgusted with the scene now exhibited in the State of Illinois,” while the Cincinnati Commercial scoffed:

The members of the coming Legislature of Illinois will be just as free to exercise their own will in the choice of Senator as if neither Mr. Douglas nor Mr. Lincoln had peregrinated the state from lake to river, wrangling over what they are pleased to consider the great national issues.

In the event, Lincoln lost the election. Two years later, he beat Douglas in a rematch for the White House, but the two men didn’t debate. Since Whigs lost in 1836 and 1844, and Frèmont lost in 1856, Lincoln’s lifetime record in presidential debates was a miserable 1-3. Some debater, huh?

* As Professor Michael Green and Sean Day kindly pointed out to me over email, it was—alas—not actually John C. Calhoun, but another John Calhoun, also a Democrat, who Lincoln debated. Calhoun, a surveyor, was also an interesting figure, if less known. He gave Lincoln a job early on, debated against him during the elections, and later urged Stephen Douglas—another friend—to run for Senate. More on him here and here.