Fergus M. Bordewich on “Face the Nation”

Fergus M Bordewich
Jack Barschi

Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of several books, including: Washington: The Making of the American Capital about the creation of Washington, DC in the 1790s; Bound for Canaan, a history of the Underground Railroad; Killing the White Man's Indian, which discusses present-day Native Americans and My Mother's Ghost, a memoir. He has written widely for many periodicals about 19th century American history, as well as about political and cultural issues in East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. He is currently working on a book about the Compromise of 1850 and America's westward expansion.

What drew you to the Lincoln/Douglas debates?
First of all, the debates are exciting in themselves, a world-class gladiatorial contest between two of the greatest orators of their age duking it out in front of the roaring masses, so to speak. There is an epic quality to this contest, a collision of two ultimately incompatible visions of America. Lincoln ultimately speaks to the future, to us, to our own modern understanding of basic human rights; Douglas, fiery populist though he is, speaks to a past in which slavery seems reasonable and human rights are negotiable. The debates also intrigue me because they take place at the last moment before Civil War becomes inevitable, when men on opposing sides of the question still believed that they could sway their opponents with words.

Did anything surprise you while covering the story?
The unalloyed, almost relentless racism that is embedded in the debates, perpetuated not only by Douglas.

During the debates, Lincoln was under political pressure to show that he could be just as racist as his opponent, Douglas. Lincoln's remarks in the Charleston debate were particularly ugly. Lincoln certainly shared the color prejudice that was common among even northern whites in his time. He made clear that he did not believe in full equality of the races, and did not advocate immediate emancipation. Yet he genuinely hated slavery as an institution, and he believed—unlike Douglas—that African Americans had a natural right to freedom and opportunity, which he repeatedly stated during the debates and for the rest of his life.

His views did, however, evolve over time. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, admired the bravery of black volunteers during the Civil War, and invited the black radical abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass to the White House—a very bold gesture on his part. In the end, the logic of Lincoln's belief in blacks' basic human rights overcame much (if not all) of his racism.

What was your favorite moment during your reporting?
Listening to George Buss perform parts of Lincoln's orations, bringing Lincoln alive with his high-pitched voice, nasal inflections, and (vaguely) Southern accent. (Lincoln was, after all, originally from the slave state of Kentucky. Douglas, ironically, hailed from the abolitionist state of Vermont.)

Why do you think historians continue to reexamine Abraham Lincoln and his debates with Stephen Douglas?
The debates really mattered. These were watershed events that really did transform the nation's politics and the way that Americans thought about slavery. The debates made Lincoln a potential candidate for president in 1860, and destroyed Douglas's hopes of becoming president that same year. Moreover, the debates themselves are so rarely read in their entirety (they're long!) that many nuances still remain to be studied and understood.

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