The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: Much Ado About Something

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“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.

As followers of this blogspot know, I an avid listener to audio books while I commute, whether to the office each day or to the store or wherever. The same 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’m 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.

At this point I admit, I’ve been in the majority, though years ago I did purchase and listen to a set of audio recordings of the writings and speeches of Abraham Lincoln performed by Raymond Massey in which one item was from this set of debates. I must tell you, however, that you owe it to yourself to listen to or read the entirety of these speeches, or if nothing else the first round of seven Lincoln-Douglas exchanges, which took place in Ottawa, Illinois in August 1858. If you can find the audio book, 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 a Northern state to outlaw slavery, he states 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 declared that the negro was not a person who had rights.Today we take all these things 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 bracing to hear Senator Douglas speak as if this obvious truth were a falsehood without merit.

In this 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. (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 but seven face-to-face encounters, but these were momentous, outlining and defining the issues which tore at the heart of a maturing nation.

Douglas did not 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 unfolding here, 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.

Originally published at
Lincoln illustration (at top) created and photographed by the author.

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

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