Back when debates really mattered

2 02 2008

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and as you might expect new books on the topic are making the rounds. The Lincoln-Douglas debates have always held a fascination for me as one of the debates took place in Charleston, where my alma mater, Eastern Illinois University, is located. I can remember walking the site at the fairgrounds and trying to imagine a time when politics and the debate process really mattered.

So far, the most impressive new work to me comes from Allen Guelzo, who has already made a name for himself with his masterful intellectual biography of Lincoln “Abraham Lincoln Redeemer President” as well as a study of the Emancipation Proclamation. Guelzo’s most recent book, “Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America” was just recently released. Guelzo argues that while the debats themselves are famous, most people today forget that they were just part of a four-month campaign. Guelzo argues that more people heard Lincoln and Douglas talk from the steps of courthouses or on the beds of wagons than heard them during one of the seven debates. The reason more people are familiar with the debates was because the Chicago Press & Tribune and the Chicago Times both hired stenographers to get first-hand the transcripts of the debates so that they could be rushed to the country anxious for news from the Prairie State.

Obviously, the debates had far more import than just the selection of a senator from Illinois. The debates introduced Lincoln to the nation, and Guelzo points out that two years after that, Lincoln would receive an invitation to make a speech before the Cooper Institute, which put him on the road to the presidency in 1860. Also on the forefront was Douglas’s idea of just what democracy meant to the nation. To Douglas, Guelzo argues, democracy had its essence in process–the allowance of the people to determine what institutions they would accept and those they would reject.

Yet another book that focuses of the two men is “The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln’s Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America” by Roy Morris, Jr. Morris has also written on Walt Whitman and Ambrose Bierce.

Morris points out that at the time they were alive, Douglas was the “most famous and controversial politician in the United States” while Lincoln was known only in his home state, although there he was Douglas’s chief rival, especially after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Morris believes that although Lincoln was certainly an ambitious man, it was his struggle with Douglas that fueled that ambition. Morris adds his doubts that at the height of Douglas’s powers that Douglas was even aware how intently Lincoln followed his every political move.

It was race that fired the rivalry between the two men, and Morris points to an interesting irony. It was Lincoln, he said, born in a slave state, that better understood how hurtful the peculiar institution would be to America whereas Douglas, born in free-state Vermont, “exhibited a perplexing, lifelong obtuseness on the issue.”

I think both books will rightfully take their place beside Harry V. Jaffa’s standard account of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, “Crisis of the House Divided.” Take a look!

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