Lincoln-Douglas Debates: Much Ado About Something

“My Fellow Citizens: When a man hears himself somewhat misrepresented, it provokes him — at least, I find it so with myself; but when misrepresentation becomes very gross and palpable, it is more apt to amuse him.”
~ Abraham Lincoln, Opening words in the first debate, Ottawa, IL.

The maxim, “Too many books, too little time” applies equally to audio books as to the printed page. The opportunities for personal development in any field are seemingly limitless with audio books, lectures, talks, whatever your mind sets about to take in. Currently, I’ve been listening to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, a fascinating experience.

Who among us, who has even the faintest echo of American history within them, has not heard of the series of debates between then-senator Stephen Douglas and Illinois candidate Abraham Lincoln? Yet I’d be willing to bet less than one in ten thousand Americans have read the transcripts of these debates.

Until now I had been numbered among them. If you haven’t the time to listen to them all, you owe it to yourself to listen to at least read the first round of the seven Lincoln-Douglas exchanges, which took place in Ottawa, Illinois in August 1858. If you can find the audio version, performed by Richard Dreyfuss as Stephen Douglas and David Straithairn as Mr. Lincoln, even better.

It’s amazing to listen to an American Senator make statements like this one, that America should be a “White Nation” and that negroes have no rights here. Even while defending the right of Northern states to outlaw slavery, he says straight up that the negro should in no way ever have the rights whites enjoy.

To support this viewpoint, Douglas appealed both to history and to the Supreme Court, which previously declared that the negro was not a person and had no rights.

Today every thinking person takes it for granted that Hispanics, Asians, Blacks, Native Americans are people, persons, human beings for whom the statement, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal” is intended to be applied across-the-board. It’s quite stunning to hear Senator Douglas speak as if this obvious truth were a falsehood without merit.

In the Ottawa debate Douglas mocked Lincoln’s speech of the previous June in which Lincoln declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Douglas noted that the nation has so stood for seventy years. In Lincoln’s rebuttal he noted that Douglas was not mocking Lincoln, but mocking the words of Jesus. (The declaration came straight from the Bible, Matthew 12:25.)

During the course of the 1858 campaign Lincoln gave 60 speeches and Douglas 130 across the great state of Illinois. There were only seven face-to-face encounters, but these were momentous, outlining and defining the issues which tore at the heart of a maturing nation.

Douglas didn’t mince words. “Now I say to you frankly that in my opinion this Government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by the white men for the benefit of the white men and their posterity forward, and was intended to be administered in all time to come by white men.”

In contrast, Mr. Lincoln stood firm. “There is no reason… why the Negro after all is not entitled to all that the Declaration of Independence holds out… In the right to eat the bread which his own hands earn, he is my equal and Judge Douglas’ equal, and the equal of every living man.”

Ultimately, Mr. Lincoln took a bullet in the head for these convictions.

Lincoln is famous for his skill at turning a phrase, and for his clever use of language. As I reflect on these debates, which remain part of American history, as I listen to these two men wrangling about the issues of the day, I am struck by this thought: it isn’t eloquence or lack of eloquence that makes a great man, but what he stands for.

If interested in reading the actual text of these debates, you can check them out here.

Originally published at
Painting at top of page, Blue Lincoln, produced by the author.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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