Lincoln 1860

Lincoln 1860

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates Revisited

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Over the course of three months from August to October, 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated each other in seven towns in Illinois as they competed for the U.S. Senate. The debates were mostly about slavery, Lincoln in opposition and Douglas in favor of "popular sovereignty," in which each state's citizens would have determination whether to accept slavery or prohibit it. Although Lincoln lost the election to the U.S. Senate (a decision made in those days by the legislature in Illinois, direct election of senators didn't happen until decades later), the debates thrust him into the national spotlight and helped him win the presidency two years later.

Two eminent Lincoln scholars, Rodney Davis and Douglas Wilson of Knox College (Galesburg, Illinois) are the co-editors of a new book about the debates. Titled "The Lincoln Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Center Studies Edition" is promoted by the gentlemen as a more accurate account of the debate speeches than has previously been written. The original debate sources scholars have to go by are two Chicago newspapers, one being a Republican paper, the other a Democrat publication. Each newspaper varied wildly in reporting the debates, including what each candidate said, how he reacted, crowd emotions, and so on. By performing a "critical analysis" of the original sources, Davis and Wilson claim that their new book is a "fuller and more accurate account of the speeches" made by Lincoln and Douglas.

Interestingly, Davis and Wilson have created podcasts of their in-depth analysis of each debate and have made them available on the web for those of us who are interested in learning more about the debates. Their podcasts are available here, courtesy of Knox College.

It should be noted that in those days, debates were "real" debates and not the so-called "debates" we are subjected to in modern times. Debates were not moderated, were not scripted, and were most certainly not limited to two minutes per response per candidate. The debates between Lincoln and Douglas sometimes took up to three hours and each candidate was allowed to speak freely. The voters (only white men in those days, of course) were thus able to truly understand each man's position on the critical issues of the day. It's a shame that we the people cannot have the same experience today.

Knox College in Galesburg was the site of one of the seven debates between Lincoln and Douglas on October 7, 1858. It's "Old Main" building is the only structure remaining from any of the debate sites. To learn more about the college itself, click here. To learn more about the college's association with Abraham Lincoln, including its Lincoln Center, click here.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, I enjoy this blog. I am not a US citizen but have a long standing interest in Lincoln.

My question is: when did Lincoln become "great"? I find different authors present different perceptions. D.H.Donald, I thought, presented a picture of a Lincoln as an almost-failed politician muddling through his early years as President to mature into greatness sometime after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Otherl like Kearns Godwin and Don Fehrenbacher present a great Lincoln fully formed, as it were, in the crucible of Illinois politics. This man arrives in Washington with no self-doubts and offers decisive leadership from the getgo.

The truth, I would say, is somewehre in between.

Lincoln's skill in handling the outbreak of war, and in keeping the border states in the Union was impressive for a man of little experience of senior political leadership. On the other hand, he probably overestimated pro-Union sentiment in the South and pushed his generals into the Bull Run debacle.

Despite Kearns Godwin, he was not a great manager of his cabinet, though I agree he succeeded in mainly having his team at odds with each other rather than with him! Could anyone else have got as much out of them? Probably, no one but Lincoln would have picked them, and he showed extraordinary self-confidence in doing so.

On balance, I am rather against Donald's view. I think Lincoln had a bedrock of self-belief in hs own capacity that made him unafraid to stand up to men like Seward who were Harvard or Yale-educated and with many more years of experience as national statesmen. He had once been publicly humilated by Edwin Stanton, but still chose him on this team. It is this self-confidence that attracts my admiration.

Geoff Elliott said...

Thank you for your question and analysis about when Lincoln became "great." Some historical revisionsists, even folks who brand themselves "historians" question Lincon's greatness, period. We can more or less throw their arguments out the door, because Lincoln was indeed a great, if complicated, man.

I would tend to agree with you. Lincoln's greatness was a long journey and most certainly came into being prior to his presidency. Certainly, Mr. Lincoln learned the basic ropes of politics thanks to his 4 terms in the Illinois legislature and his single term in the U.S. Congress. In the statehouse, he rose to become Whig party leader in Illinois. His term in Washington led to no signficant accomplishments.

But after his term in Congress, Lincoln still kept attuned with the politics of the day. His work as a highly paid railroad lawyer kept him in touch with the politically powerful throught Illinois and other parts of the country. He was a natural at interactions with people, often using his humor to make important points in conversations and about issues of the day.

I think that for the most part, Lincoln solidified his greatness during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. He truly came into his own during those three months in 1858, showing himself to be a brilliant political thinker, and in turn fine-tuning his self-confidence.

After he lost the election to the Senate, Lincoln embarked on tours throughout the rest of the country, making important political connections, giving speeches which gathered national attention, and basically keeping his name known to the country.

So when did Lincoln become great? I would have to say in those 12 years between his term in Congress and his election to the presidency.

Thanks for reading my blog and feel free to comment again.

Christy said...

I am also fascinated by the way Lincoln came into his own in 1858. I would have loved to have known the 'before' Lincoln. :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads-up on these podcasts. I'm a big fan of Mr. Wilson and I could listen to him talk about Abe for hours. I'm actually working with him on creating a Lincoln bicenntennial web-project for the the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philly and I get excited every time I get to talk with him about Lincoln. Now I know of another way to get my Lincoln/Wilson fix.

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