How Lincoln Bested Douglas in Their Famous Debates

The 1858 debates reframed America’s argument about slavery and transformed Lincoln into a presidential contender

Douglas expected to crush his untried opponent in the enormously crowd-pleasing debates (Granger Collection, New York)
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In Freeport, Illinois, just beyond the somnolent downtown, a small park near the Pecatonica River is wedged next to the public library. In the mid-19th century, however, land along the shore stretched green into the distance, the grassy hills dotted with maples and river birches. It was here, on August 27, 1858, that U.S. senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas waged a war of words.

"Imagine that you're there," says my guide, George Buss, stepping onto the four-foot-high concrete replica of a speaker's platform, installed here in 1992 to memorialize the debate. He places a hand on the head of the squat, life-size bronze sculpture of Douglas, who was a foot shorter than Lincoln. "Picture the banners, brass bands and parades...people pushing and running up to the comurthouse for sandwiches, where they're barbecuing an ox. Douglas is pacing back and forth like a lion. People in the back of the crowd are shouting, ‘What'd he say? What'd he say?'"

At 6-foot-5 and with craggy features, deep-set eyes and gangly limbs, Buss, a Freeport school administrator, bears an eerie resemblance to the 16th president. Indeed, for 22 years, Buss has moonlighted as one of the nation's most accomplished Lincoln interpreters. As a schoolboy nearly 40 years ago, he got hooked on Honest Abe when he learned that one of the seven historic Lincoln-Douglas debates had taken place in his hometown.

Buss continues: "Lincoln stretches up onto his toes to make a point." He recites Lincoln's words: "Can the people of a United States territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a state constitution?" Looking into the distance, Buss repeats: "Just imagine that you're there."

Lincoln and incumbent senator Douglas squared off, of course, in the most famous debates in American history. The Illinois encounters would reshape the nation's bitter argument over slavery, transform Lincoln into a contender for the presidency two years later and set a standard for political discourse that has rarely been equaled. Today, the debates have achieved a mythic dimension, regarded as the ultimate exemplar of homegrown democracy, enacted by two larger-than-life political figures who brilliantly explicated the great issues of the day for gatherings of ordinary citizens.

Momentous issues were at stake. Would the vast western territories be opened to slavery? Would slavery insinuate itself into the states where it was now illegal? Had the founding fathers intended the nation to be half slave and half free? Did one group of states possess the right to dictate to another what was right and wrong? According to Tom Schwartz, Illinois' state historian, "each man was pretty plain in how he would deal with the major issue facing the nation: the expansion or elimination of slavery. These are still the gold standard of public discussion."

But while the debates have long been recognized as a benchmark in American political history, they are probably more celebrated than they are understood. It is indeed true that in the course of seven debates, two of the country's most skilled orators delivered memorably provocative, reasoned and (occasionally) morally elevated arguments on the most divisive issues of the day. What is less well-known, however, is that those debates also were characterized by substantial amounts of pandering, baseless accusation, outright racism and what we now call "spin." New research also suggests that Lincoln's powers of persuasion were far greater than historians previously realized. In our own day, as two dramatically different candidates for president clash across an ideological divide, the oratorical odyssey of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas may offer more than a few lessons—in the power of persuasive rhetoric, the effect of bigotry and the American public's craving for political leaders who are able to explain the great issues of the day with clarity and conviction.

Both then and now, the debates' impact was amplified by changing technology. In 1858, innovation was turning what would otherwise have been a local contest into one followed from Mississippi to Maine. Stenographers trained in shorthand recorded the candidates' words. Halfway through each debate, runners were handed the stenographers' notes; they raced for the next train to Chicago, converting shorthand into text during the journey and producing a transcript ready to be typeset and telegraphed to the rest of the country as soon as it arrived. "The combination of shorthand, the telegraph and the railroad changed everything," says Allen C. Guelzo, author of Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America. "It was unprecedented. Lincoln and Douglas knew they were speaking to the whole nation. It was like JFK in 1960 coming to grips with the presence of the vast new television audience."

At the time, Lincoln was not the haggard, hollow-eyed figure of his Civil War photographs. At 49, he was still cleanshaven, with chiseled cheekbones and a faint smile that hinted at his irrepressible wit. And while he affected a backwoods folksiness that put voters at ease, he was actually a prosperous lawyer who enjoyed an upper-middle-class existence in an exclusive section of Springfield, the state capital. "Lincoln was always aware of his image," says Matthew Pinsker, a Lincoln scholar based at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. "He deliberately emphasized his height by wearing a top hat, which made him seem even taller. He knew that it made him stand out."

For Lincoln, the Republican senatorial nomination was a debt repaid; four years before, he had withdrawn from the contest for Illinois' other U.S. Senate seat, making way for party regular Lyman Trumbull. "The party felt that it had an obligation to him, but few believed that he could actually beat Douglas," says Guelzo. To Lincoln's chagrin, some Republican power brokers—including New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley—actually favored Douglas, whom they hoped to recruit as a Republican presidential candidate in 1860.


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