- Historic Sites
The Young Republic 1787 To 1860
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
Then you might turn to another big book, Frederick Law Olmsted’s
edited by Harold Holzer (1993; Fordham). Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Stephen Douglas spoke from complete written texts during their famous debates of 1858, although they used notes—both sets long since lost. Surviving versions of their speeches came from the intensely partisan newspapers of the time. What the newspapers published was not, however, exactly what their stenographers recorded. Editors at Chicago’s leading Republican paper, the Daily Press and Tribune, fixed Lincoln’s spoken prose, repairing grammatical errors, cutting off run-on sentences and the like, but left Douglas’s pretty much alone. The Democratic Chicago Daily Times did the opposite.
Then in 1860 the Republicans published the debates in book form, using the Republican press’s version of Lincoln’s speeches and the Democratic press’s version of Douglas’s, both taken from a scrapbook Lincoln kept. But first Lincoln made further revisions in his speeches (more, Holzer says, than he admitted) and removed all the audience interventions that the newspapers had carefully recorded. That staid version of the debates showed off Lincoln’s eloquent moral statements to maximum advantage, reduced his on-site awkwardness compared with Douglas, and contributed enormously to his presidential candidacy. Subsequent publications of the debates reprinted that “doctored” text of 1860, sometimes reinserting some of the audience’s reactions.
Then how can we know what was actually said in 1858? That’s simple, Holzer said. Publish the Republican press’s version of Douglas’s speeches and the Democratic press’s version of Lincoln’s—that is, the “unexpurgated” texts neither paper saw fit to change. Actually, Holzer did more than that. He noted places where the two newspapers’ texts varied substantially and the different ways they described the audience’s reactions to certain statements. Best of all, he wrote a lively general introduction and wonderful descriptions of the scene for each of the debates that depict the physical setting, the audience, and the wild pageantry that was part of the event, as well as a brief gloss of the debate itself.
So far as I can tell, this book received remarkably little notice when it was first published. I have read only one serious critical essay. Yet to me, the Holzer edition is way more interesting than any other version of the debates. In fact, it’s the best introduction to nineteenth-century politics I know. To be sure, the debates are repetitious, and it’s fair to skip pages when the speakers dig deeply into the details of Illinois politics. But enjoy the combat, as Douglas quickly put Lincoln on the defensive, from which he struggled to recover. Note how both speakers parried or played audiences that were racist even in northern Illinois, where antislavery was more widespread than in the southern part of the state.
People flocked from afar sometimes to stand three hours—the length of a debate—in the beating sun, close enough to the platform, they hoped, that they could hear what was said. They laughed; they cheered. One heckler shouted that Lincoln was a fool. “I guess there are two of us,” he answered, sparking more laughter. The issue at stake—slavery and the future of the Union—was deadly serious, but still politics could be fun. And American democracy was young and well. These were real debates, not the scripted serial monologues that pass as “presidential debates” these days. Once again, only by looking back can we get a good vantage on where we are.
Well, there’s my list, and it has hardly a word on the settlement of the West, or on wars. Would colleagues have questioned it if I’d mentioned Bernard DeVoto’s wide-ranging