By Nancy Spannaus

June 30, 2019—A quick survey of the commentary on the recent Democratic presidential debates confirms that I am not the only person who was immediately struck by the contrast between these “sound-byte” events and the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. But I believe that in this time of severe political turmoil, and existential economic and strategic threats to our nation’s very existence, the subject of candidate debates deserves greater attention.

A Reflection on Candidate Debates

Let’s start with some fundamentals. First, why does the American electorate not demand a full, open-ended discussion of the crises before our country by those who are vying to lead it?  Why do we allow debates to be organized and dominated by the media, who get to choose the topics, set ridiculous time limits, and vie with the candidates for applause lines? Why do we pretend that exposure to candidates spouting one-liners provides us with an adequate basis to judge their qualifications for office?

To answer those questions requires us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, and confront some unfortunate changes we have undergone as a nation over our history. Let’s start by looking at the condition of the nation at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debate

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas squared off in 1858 in competition for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. Lincoln was a former U.S. Congressman and Douglas the incumbent Senator. While both men had previously been Whigs, Lincoln had joined the new anti-slavery Republican Party (est. 1856), and Douglas had become a standard-bearer for the Democratic Party, which was committed to preserving the “rights” of slaveholders. The results of the popular vote in the contest between them would determine the composition of the Illinois State Senate, which would elect the next U.S. Senator.

The issue in the election was the same issue that was roiling the nation: the expansion of slavery. The conflict between pro- and anti-slavery factions was becoming increasingly heated throughout the country, with physical confrontations breaking out everywhere from the Halls of Congress to the state of Kansas. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which called for “popular sovereignty,” and the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision had both made it clear to Lincoln, and others, that the “slave power” was determined to expand the institution throughout the country, no matter what the opposition.

The Republican Party platform explicitly invoked the Declaration of Independence in support of its principled opposition to the expansion of slavery, although it did not take an abolitionist stance. The population of Illinois, a free state, was, like those in other states, sharply divided, but also keenly interested in hearing what the candidates had to say about addressing the problem.

A Reflection on Candidate Debates
A depiction of a Lincoln-Douglas debate (National Park Service)

Thus, the seven debates which Douglas and Lincoln scheduled in all corners of the state were attended by crowds which would astound political campaigners today.  According to contemporary newspaper reports, anywhere from 1000 to 25,000 citizens showed up at each location, and sat or stood for three hours to hear the candidates. The agreed-upon format called for the lead speaker to present his case for one hour, followed by a one-and-half hour rebuttal by the other candidates, and then a half-hour rejoinder by the first speaker. Since the debates occurred between the end of August and the end of October, some of them occurred under conditions of both extreme heat and a severe autumn chill.

That is not to say that the crowd showed perfect decorum. Catcalls were heard, and occasional pieces of fruit were thrown. The candidates themselves often took off the gloves, with Douglas calling Lincoln’s party the “black Republicans,” and Lincoln using withering sarcasm against his opponent. The content of the speeches was recorded by stenographers from the Chicago newspapers (one Republican and the other Democratic) who immediately sent the texts around the country.

Some have argued that these debates in fact had more impact nationally, than they did in Illinois itself. Lincoln won the popular vote in the election, but Douglas was elected Senator by the Illinois State Senate.  Yet the content of the debate shaped political discussion throughout the country. That impact was amplified by the fact that, a few months later, Lincoln published a book of the transcripts, Political Debates Between Hon. Abraham Lincoln and Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, which kept the matter alive.

The Issue at Stake

To me, this extraordinary series of debates should represent a real challenge to the American voting public, not to mention its politicians.  Here we had tens of thousands of “average Americans,” probably many with only a grammar school education, prepared to travel to, and attend, an extensive debate on one of the most pressing issues of the day. Sure, there were probably festival entertainments bordering these events which made them “fun,” but the guts of the matter was a detailed set of arguments which were being made on the basis on contrasting principles. Lincoln was arguing his position from the standpoint of moral principle, the one enshrined in the Declaration of Independence’s “All men are created equal…”, while Douglas was insisting that this principle did not include the black man. This was not a “bread-and-butter” issue, but it grabbed the attention of the average citizen and got him passionately involved.

What this public interest shows to me is a high degree of attention span, and a seriousness about politics that is virtually unknown today. Listen to a debate for one or three hours? Today’s electorate tends to get bored after two minutes! And do we have candidates for high office who could develop a coherent argument for an hour and a half?

A Reflection on Candidate Debates
John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence

Abraham Lincoln actually feared that the American people in 1858 had already lost their connection to the principles of the Revolution.  The generation which had sacrificed its lives and fortunes to create the nation had died out, and he saw the zeal for the high ideals upon which the nation was founded fading out as well. How much more do we need to fear the same today?

Do our citizens today even read our founding documents (much less, the Lincoln-Douglas debates)?  Are they willing to spend hours debating political principles, studying economic policies, answering critics? Do they understand the principles upon which our nation was founded? Do they care?

One key example:  The battle cry today of the partisans of both parties is frequently the demand for more “democracy,” more exercise of the “popular will?” Yet our Founding Fathers, even those who sometimes identified themselves as democratic-republicans, were clear that they were establishing a republic, not a democracy. A republic required a citizenry committed to serving the public welfare through constant improvement—physically and morally. It puts a high value on reason and electing leaders who meet the highest standards.

But to the founders, democracy meant mob rule, the suppression of minorities by majorities, the victory of the passion of the moment over reasoned approaches to creating conditions to improve the “general welfare.” How close have we come to that degenerate standard today?

Of course it’s a good thing that our republic has come closer to fulfilling the ideals of the Declaration by, among other things, extending the franchise to women, African-Americans, and other minorities. But right along with it must come the commitment by all Americans (white, black, or purple) to personally qualify themselves for citizenship. We must know our history; study our founding documents; educate ourselves on economics and politics to the extent our circumstances of life permit it; and be guided by the principles so eloquently elaborated by our Declaration and then put into governance by our Constitution.

Lincoln, like George Washington and others, was very clear that the major threat to the survival of the American Republic was not outside threats, but the corruption of the body politic at home. He put it this way in his 1838 Lyceum speech, in which he excoriated the deteriorating political conditions in the country:

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.

A population which abandons a commitment to reason, education, and progress in favor of the “quick fix” is well on its way to that suicide. If we judged ourselves by our presidential debates, we would have to conclude that we are far along that path.


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