During the past few weeks, Americans have had the chance to watch their two Presidential candidates take part in three 90 minute debates. The general consensus seems to be that the debates were a disappointment – that neither candidate quite lived up to the significance of the coming election, that neither candidate made a compelling case, that neither candidate seemed to understand the causes of, nor was able to offer solutions to, the major issue of the election – the crisis in global financial markets.
This year is a significant anniversary of the forerunners of the modern Presidential debate. 2008 is the 150th anniversary of the debates that took place in Illinois in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for one of the Illinois seats in the US Senate, a contest that was of course repeated two years later during the Presidential election of 1860. Just like today, in 1858, there was one issue dominating the election above all others. It was a moral issue rather than an economic one that dominated the debates between Lincoln and Douglas. And that issue was slavery.
Slavery had always divided North and South, from America’s birth. The Constitution protected slavery in states where it already existed. But as America acquired new territories that were destined for statehood, arguments about whether those new territories should allow slavery threatened to tear the nation apart. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, which set geographical limits on where slavery would be allowed, settled the question for a while. 30 years later, the issue was re-ignited due to territory (including California) captured during the Mexican wars, and the Compromise of 1850 again found a balance between the interests of north and south which both sides could live with. Four years later, Kansas and Nebraska sought statehood. The Kansas Nebraska Act gave the citizens of those new states the option to be slave-holding or free states, enraging many in the North, as it over-rode the geographical limits set out in the Missouri Compromise. In 1857, the Supreme Court pronounced its infamous opinion on the Dred Scott case. Dred Scott was a slave suing for his freedom. Mr Scott lost. The court ruled that because Mr Scott was black, he was not a citizen, and therefore had no right to be heard in a US Federal court. The Court further claimed that slaves were private property protected by the Constitution. Mr Scott was bought, and promptly freed, but the Supreme Court’s judgement further inflamed opinion in the north. This was the atmosphere in which Lincoln, the candidate of the newly formed Republican Party prepared to fight the well-known supporter of slavery Stephen Douglas, a much more prominent national figure, and the incumbent Democratic Senator.
In the August of 1858, Lincoln and Douglas embarked on a series of
debates, seven in total, stretching all over Illinois, attracting
thousands of spectators.. The rules were simple. The first speaker
spoke for an hour, the second for an hour and a half, and the first
speaker finished with half an hour of rebuttal. The candidates had no
teleprompters. They didn’t even have microphones. Without radio or TV
adverts to get their message across, live speeches and debates were the
only way candidates could really communicate directly with voters.
Reporters sent instant transcripts to their offices all over country,
and these transcripts often appeared in full in the next day’s
All seven debates focused almost exclusively on slavery, and each
man’s mastery of the subject was clear. Douglas was a key player in the
passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and he defended the idea of
allowing the citizens of each state the right to decide for themselves
whether to be slave-holding or free, invoking the tradition of popular
sovereignty. Lincoln responded by arguing that Kansas-Nebraska
threatened the whole country with slavery, and that rather than facing
an inevitable decline, as many in the North had assumed it would,
slavery could spread to states that had once been free.
Lincoln focused on the Declaration of Independence’s famous line,
that “All men are created equal”, as the basis for his argument that
slavery was against the ideals on which the nation was founded. Douglas
focused on the importance of self-determination, outlined in the
Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln took this argument square on, pointing out
that Douglas was not arguing only for self-government, but for the
rights of some men to govern others who had no say.
During the debate at Alton, Lincoln spelt out, in clear moral terms, the central case against slavery:
“It is the eternal struggle between these two principles —
right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles
that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever
continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the
other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever
shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work
and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it
comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the
people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from
one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the
same tyrannical principle.”
Despite his eloquence, and his ability to summarise the choice
facing the electorate in a simple way, Lincoln lost the 1858 Senate
election to Douglas. But he did win the bigger battle of course, in
1860. And ultimately, he won the biggest battle of all, by winning the
Civil War and ending slavery.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book on Lincoln, “Team of Rivals” explores the debates and the events that preceded them.