History Lesson

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates Unplugged

A new book strips away the nostalgia around this classic encounter.

A daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln

Cynics love to groan about presidential debates. The historic 1960 encounters between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, though now swathed in myth, gave rise to gripes that those political quiz shows weren’t true debates but merely joint press conferences. And ever since general-election debates resumed in 1976, the same critique has appeared each cycle. The candidates, we’re reminded, don’t think spontaneously so much as regurgitate excerpts from their stump speeches or recite canned jokes. Self-important moderators degrade the discourse with gotcha questions, bullying candidates into irresponsible pledges or making them look evasive if they dare to stand their ground. Afterward, the usual cast of blowhards sets to work ignoring all but a few sound bites while dwelling on—and thus influencing—the question of who comes out ahead.

The Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debates of 1858—the seven three-hour-long contests conducted around Illinois by Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, the incumbent, and Republican Abraham Lincoln, the former congressman and challenger—stand in our collective memory as the beau ideal beside which today’s events supposedly pale. In Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, historian Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College seeks to rescue these momentous clashes from their gilded place in our lore. As an exemplar of the gauzy distortions of hindsight, Guelzo cites late media scholar Neil Postman’s pronouncement that where Lincoln-Douglas embodied a literary oratory and belonged to “the Age of Exposition,” Nixon-Kennedy and subsequent made-for-TV clashes were nothing but creatures of “the Age of Show Business.”

Please, Mr. Postman. Scholars should know better than to traffic in such nostalgia; the Lincoln-Douglas contest, after all, provided plenty of entertainment, too. Guelzo’s feat is that he does more than just resist the romanticized view of the event. He takes on with equal relish the counterclaim, widely accepted by academics, that the Lincoln-Douglas encounters were simply the trashy “political theater” of a pre-wired era. While some historians have argued that the turnout at debates like these reflected simply the robust energies of the party machines, which hustled out crowds and plied them with food and drink, Guelzo gives the debates their popular due.

He does so by locating them within the context of the 1858 senatorial campaign, enfolding them in a seamless, if sometimes heavy-going, narrative. He also grounds them in confident analyses of the period’s political culture: the state of the parties, the prevalent style of campaigning and public speaking, and the issues that voters worried about—above all, the debate over slavery’s expansion into the American West.

In 1858, America was approaching civil war. For more than a generation, a series of compromises between North and South—the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—had put off without resolving the question of whether the nation could remain “half-slave and half-free,” as Lincoln put it in his “House Divided” speech while accepting the Republican Party’s senatorial nomination early that summer. The core question was whether to permit slavery in newly acquired Western lands. As early as 1854, Douglas had championed the principle called “popular sovereignty,” which let settlers of these new territories decide for themselves whether to legalize slavery. In response, Lincoln, who would soon leave the Whig Party for the fledgling Republican Party (formed in response to the Kansas controversy), emerged as one of Douglas’ most prominent critics, a “free soiler” devoted to keeping slavery from the territories, going so far as to argue against his fellow Illinoisan that slavery was ultimately incompatible with the doctrine that all men are created equal.

For the Republicans to nominate such a fierce critic of slavery’s expansion in 1858 was risky. Some national party leaders, such as newspaperman Horace Greeley of New York, threw their support to Douglas. Others worried that Lincoln’s stance too closely resembled abolitionism—a dirty word in some parts—which they feared would alienate the Whigs whose votes might swing the election. Douglas, for his part, also had a fine line to walk. Having fallen out with President James Buchanan, a Democrat, for helping defeat Kansas’ pro-slavery “Lecompton Constitution,” the veteran senator had to rally Democratic loyalists without seeming to turn a blind eye to slavery’s evils.

Although Douglas at first spurned the idea of debating, he soon agreed to square off against his lesser-known rival. Such an extensive joint “canvass” was unusual, especially since they were campaigning, strictly speaking, not for their own election but on behalf of their parties, seeking to elect state legislators who would in turn choose the next U.S. senator. Each needed to sweep into Springfield enough party-mates to guarantee victory when the new legislature convened. Thus the high season of the campaign, from August through the November election, became in effect a single, rolling roadshow of a debate.

Guelzo carefully documents how each of the seven face-offs assumed a slightly different character. At each stop, Lincoln and Douglas replied to the other’s charges from previous debates and tailored their remarks to local audiences, whether Republican, Democratic, or Whig. They also indulged in ad hominem attacks, slung charges of dirty dealing, and distorted the other’s positions. The fierceness of these exchanges as Guelzo presents them is bracing to behold—and, for what it’s worth, lends needed perspective to the dire claims we’ve been hearing lately that this year’s presidential campaign is uncommonly divisive.

The most jarring of these appeals are the frankly racist ones. Douglas demonized Lincoln as a supporter of full equality for blacks—not just “natural” rights such as freedom from slavery—and brandished his own white supremacist bona fides. Between debates, he played to the ugliest stereotypes, ranting, as one paper noted, about “the unfortunate odor of the black man [and] asked if his audience wished to eat with, ride with, go to church with, travel with and in other ways bring Congo odor into their nostrils.” Lincoln, courting Whig voters, took pains to qualify his support for racial equality. “I am not nor have ever been in favor or making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people,” he said in one debate, at the start of what Guelzo calls “a disgraceful catalog of all the civil rights he, fully as much as Douglas, believed blacks could be routinely deprived of.” These moments drive home just how remote from our own time the political culture of the 1850s was. They destroy, too, the rosy picture of the Lincoln-Douglas contests as an exercise in elevated rational-critical discourse.

Yet neither the demagoguery nor the grandstanding nor the cheap shots eclipsed the debates’ substance. On the contrary, Guelzo shows how the candidates worked over the whole complex of slavery-related issues, in all their difficulty—not with the language and rigor of philosophers but with sophisticated reasoning nonetheless. Indeed, the main flaw of Guelzo’s book, its eye-rubbing density, results not from any clotting in his prose, which is supple, but simply from the highly intricate nature of the candidates’ arguments. (Guelzo includes scorecards to help his readers keep track.)

How audiences responded to these extended presentations, Guelzo concedes, is hard to know. But he suggests that Douglas’ slender victory in November had a Pyrrhic quality. Lincoln, after all, went on to earn a national reputation while Douglas muddied his own defense of popular sovereignty enough to harm him in the South two years later—when the Lincoln-Douglas rematch (sans debates) put the free soiler in the White House.

Guelzo’s conclusion, rooted in the ideas of Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel, interprets the debates as a triumph of Lincoln’s moral vision over Douglas’ arid proceduralism. It’s presented as something of an afterthought and doesn’t adequately close his stirring tale. He might have been better off drawing out a claim that he leaves implicit, almost untapped: that down-and-dirty politics and serious argument about burning issues need not exist in separate realms.

Indeed, it’s worth considering whether fruitful clashes about political ideas are most likely to occur not despite an environment of raucous and sometimes ugly campaigning but becauseof it. The constant canvassing of Lincoln and Douglas around Illinois in the fall of 1858, their growing irritation with each other and desire to demarcate their differences, produced plenty of coarseness and heat. But the very intensity of their engagement seems to have been necessary to generate a light about slavery and its expansion that, among its other effects, helped demonstrate the fitness of a newly prominent and battle-tested one-time congressman for the presidency two years later.