Guelzo, Allen C.
New York, New York: Simon & Schuster
One hundred and fifty years on, the Lincoln-Douglas debates enjoy the dubious status of myth. The specific circumstances and local passions that shaped them have long been forgotten, and subsequent events — the rise of Lincoln as a towering national figure and the Civil War — make it almost mandatory to read the debates as an ominous prologue or an intellectual dress rehearsal for national tragedy. In his searching and illuminating “Lincoln and Douglas” the eminent Lincoln historian Allen C. Guelzo does the great service of bringing the debates back down to earth, placing them in the context of a brutal four-month senatorial campaign. Yes, important principles were involved in the arguments between the Democratic incumbent, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and his upstart Republican rival, Abraham Lincoln. But raw politics shaped their words in the summer and fall of 1858, as the two men calculated, pandered, exploited each other’s weaknesses and grabbed for votes in an increasingly desperate battle for a seat in the Senate. Only by looking at the electoral politics in Illinois, Mr. Guelzo argues, can we hope to understand the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, which took place in different locations before audiences with correspondingly different opinions, concerns and political allegiances. Neither candidate was entirely his own master, either. Party grandees exercised their own potent influence, feeding questions to the two men, criticizing their performances and coaching from the sidelines. The debates, Mr. Guelzo repeatedly emphasizes, were only part of an often dirty political campaign, not a series of Socratic dialogues. “Far more Illinoisans heard Lincoln and Douglas on courthouse steps, from railroad platforms, from hastily hammered-together stands at country fairs and from the flatbeds of wagons than heard them in face-to-face debate,” he writes. Following the two men from town to town on their itinerary, Mr. Guelzo reconstructs the political challenges presented in different parts of Illinois. The state divided into three ideological belts, the solidly Democratic South separated from the solidly Republican North by a fat central “Whig belt” of voters opposed to slavery but committed to white supremacy. In this contested middle ground, both candidates trimmed and waffled, clawing for advantage and votes. Lincoln entered the campaign on the defensive, a purely local figure with only lukewarm support from the state party and the whiff of failure hanging over him. “He was respected; he was liked, even admired,” Mr. Guelzo writes. “But he had the reputation of being a loser, and it does not look well in politics to lay your money on a slow horse.” Expectations were low. The celebrated Douglas, a little dynamo on the speaking platform, did not make the mistake of underestimating his opponent. “He is the strong man of his party — full of wit, facts, dates — and the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West,” Douglas told a supporter. In his “house divided” speech, delivered in Springfield on accepting the nomination, Lincoln had provided Douglas with an opening. Throughout the debates Douglas attacked Lincoln as an abolitionist determined to bring North and South into conflict, and elevate the Negro to a position of equality with whites. The United States had survived for many years as a house divided, he argued, and could continue to do so as long as agitators like Lincoln were kept out of office. Lincoln, for his part, leapt on Douglas’s much-heralded concept of popular sovereignty, according to which each state and territory should be free to choose slavery or not, as it liked. In theory it was pernicious, he argued, because it refused to recognize slavery as a moral wrong. In practice it could lead to the extension of slavery throughout the territories and, over time, the entire United States, since the recent Dred Scott decision suggested that the Supreme Court would not allow any state laws restricting the rights of slave owners. The tone (and sometimes the arguments) changed, depending on the audience. Lincoln, facing a Whig audience in Charleston in the fourth debate and stung by constant race-baiting from Douglas, appeased his frightened party handlers and listed, Mr. Guelzo writes, “a disgraceful catalog of all the civil rights he, fully as much as Douglas, believed blacks could be routinely deprived of.” Douglas, for his part, exploited the race issue for all it was worth. Who won? Depending on which newspaper you read, the first debate, in upstate Ottawa, was either a triumph or a disaster for either side. Lincoln’s defeat was “so severe,” the Douglasite newspapers reported, “that the Republicans hung their heads in shame” and their man, after collapsing from nervous exhaustion, had to be carried from the platform. On the contrary, a Republican newspaper reported, Douglas, “his face distorted with rage,” showed himself “a maniac in language and argument,” and Lincoln, “to use the expression of the crowd, ‘chawed him up’ completely.” In truth, the ups and downs of the debates, and the tendency of both men to become entangled in lawyerly arcana on matters long forgotten, often make it difficult to figure out which candidate was getting the upper hand. Mr. Guelzo, like a boxing scorer, presents a chart for each debate, indicating points made and rebutted, but he throws up his hands at deciding a winner. Lincoln lost the election, for reasons having nothing to do with the debates, but gained the national stature that would put him in the White House within a few short years. Merely holding his own against the mighty Douglas counted as a victory. More important, the debates, although rooted in picayune state politics, did articulate resounding national issues. When he cast off his cautious, lawyerly mode of argument, Lincoln rose to grand rhetorical heights, delineating an argument about democracy that, Mr. Guelzo contends, carries to the present day. Is the American political system ultimately “a procedural framework for exercising rights,” as Douglas saw it, or, as Lincoln responded with increasing fervor, a moral enterprise aimed at “the realization of a right political order”?
Hardcover, 383 pages, 6 1/4" x 9 1/4"
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