The Great Debates

Book cover
Lincoln and Douglasby By Allen C. GuelzoSimon & Schuster. 416p $26

Those Americans who follow presidential politics know that Abraham Lincoln once debated Stephen Douglas in a series remembered as the paradigm of that form of political discourse. In the introduction to his new study of these debates, however, Allen C. Guelzo argues that the circumstances of the Lincoln-Douglas debates are poorly remembered. They did not take place during the presidential campaign of 1860, but during an Illinois race for the U.S. Senate two years earlier. The use of the debate transcripts to seek signs of the future Lincoln presidency and the Civil War ignores their immediate context, forgetting that these exchanges had in view one particular election.

Guelzo (Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College) seeks to revise understanding of the debates by focusing on that election. He gives us the political culture of economically troubled antebellum Illinois, whose poorer white voters feared competition with freed slaves for land and jobs, and the campaign strategies of each side. Thus he reconstructs a political procedure not followed since 1913: the selection of U.S. senators by state legislators rather than direct popular vote. Anyone reading this book would not wish for a return to the system used in 1858, as Guelzo demonstrates that an unfair legislative apportionment plan was largely responsible for the defeat of Lincoln, the popular-vote winner. It is sobering to reflect that the debates, for all their quality, may have had absolutely no influence on this result. Ironically, Lincoln carried the state for president over Douglas two years later with a virtually identical popular vote because Illinois’ electoral votes were distributed in a different way that now favored Lincoln.

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Guelzo also discusses alternative evidence that suggests the debates did influence Lincoln’s defeat. Republicans were unpopular in heavily Whig central Illinois, whose moderate Unionist voters considered them too close to abolitionists. Lincoln lost this swing area in both 1858 and 1860. In fact, Guelzo reveals that Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” acceptance speech to the Republican State Convention in June, 1858, was delivered against the wishes of advisors who feared it would unsettle traditional Whigs. A reluctant Lincoln, however, later had to accept the direction of the Republican State Committee that he debate Douglas, again in hopes of reassuring the Whigs. Guelzo’s attentiveness to voting records shows definitively that this strategy failed in essential districts.

At this point a flaw in the book becomes troublesome. Guelzo despises Douglas, whom he regards as the prototype of the pandering politician, eager to assume that whatever was popular with the electorate was ethical, in contrast to Lincoln’s stand for principle. In fact, Guelzo describes the Lincoln Memorial as a rebuke to the United States Capitol, which has been made a memorial to Douglas by the antics of our recent Congresses. This bias prevents Guelzo from considering what was compelling to some voters about the doctrine Douglas defended in the debates—popular sovereignty.

Douglas believed that individual territories should choose for themselves whether to enter the Union as slave states or free states, while Lincoln wanted to restrict slavery to the territories in which it already existed. Their different ways of reading the Constitution resulted in contrasting positions. Douglas read the Constitution literally: it must approve of the slavery it permitted. Lincoln felt that the moral principles expressed in the Constitution were most important: it contained an underlying spirit of equality that should be taken as a sign that the document was meant to produce a gradual end of slavery. History shows the triumph of Lincoln’s approach; but if Guelzo really wishes to recapture the mood of 1858, he should consider that moderate Whig voters, more concerned with saving the Union than abolishing slavery, likely found Douglas’s more cautious reading of the Constitution to be a safer course.

Guelzo’s dislike of Douglas may also have led him to ignore an episode in which Douglas may have indeed stood for principle. In Kansas territory, the popular sovereignty doctrine had brought about a bloody insurrection in which pro- and antislavery factions produced rival state constitutions. Late in 1857, President James Buchanan endorsed the proslavery Lecompton Constitution. Douglas disagreed, arguing that Lecompton was not the legitimate product of a majority of Kansas voters. Buchanan’s response allows Guelzo to discuss another lost aspect of the American political system—the complete control of federal patronage that the president enjoyed before the civil service system was introduced in the 1880s. Buchanan set out to punish and unseat Douglas by his control of this spoils system, nearly costing the latter his Senate seat. Guelzo dismisses this episode as nothing more than an example of Douglas’s love of a political gamble, but perhaps some voters took it as an admirable attempt to defend the lawful exercise of majority rule.

Admirers of Theodore H. White’s Making of the Presidents series will recognize in Guelzo many of the same techniques. He puts us inside each campaign. He does not neglect the well-known content of the debates, but he also shows how much of what was said and done by both camps was determined by the proximate goal of winning an election rather than a desire to speak to the ages.

That the Lincoln-Douglas debates became immortal despite that is an encouraging sign for the American political system. The immortality of the debates, though, may not be due only to Lincoln’s reminder that government should promote what is right, but also to Douglas’s reminder that a democracy needs a legally respectable process for determining a true majority vote.

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