Q&A: Trump vs. Clinton is no Lincoln vs. Douglas

    From left: Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas (public domain)

    From left: Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas (public domain)

    “I doubt whether we could easily revert to the exact format of Lincoln and Douglas, but we could take a few leaves from their book which I think would greatly improve the debates and process of informing the electorate,” says Allen Guelzo, Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College.

    The Chicago and Rock Island Railroad offered half-price tickets for the four-hour excursion from Chicago to Ottawa, Ill., site of the first of the seven debates that would be held that summer and fall of 1858. Latecomers finding no hotel rooms the night before the event camped by the Illinois River. The next day, some 12,000 people milled in the vicinity of the town square where a platform had been set up for the two speakers.

    One speaker was a widely known U.S. senator, short and squat and oratorically florid. The other remained little recognized outside of Illinois. Though he stood a foot taller than his opponent, whom he was trying to oust from the Senate, he was otherwise unprepossessing in appearance, an angular visage over a gangly frame. The high pitch of his voice contrasted with the gravity of thought that found expression in spare eloquence and relentless logic. He would lose this election — but, in losing, he would be cast into national prominence and his epochal role in American history.

    Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

    Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?

    Hardly would those four names be mentioned in proximity except that with the continuing Clinton-Trump face-offs we again hear complaint that political debate isn’t what it should be — or used to be.

    When Lincoln and Douglas debated the spread of slavery into the western territories, the two men spoke for hours, extempore, and in sentences so syntactically tidy they could have been put up for display and diagrammed. And yet today how would we react to the substance of what they had to say? Did the thousands who turned out to see Lincoln and Douglas in those seveon Illinois cities really listen to them for all those hours? Did the press covering those long-ago debates even pretend to objectivity?

    Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College and the author of, among other books, “Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America” (from which most of the details here are taken). Recently he replied to questions I emailed him about those 19th-century debates that still live in the national memory. (His responses appear in italics.)

    Simply arranging a general-election debate these days can become political. How did the Lincoln-Douglas debates come about?

    The campaign between Lincoln and Douglas had actually been in operation for about a month when the idea was sprung for one-on-one debates, but it was not sprung by either Lincoln or Douglas. It was the Illinois Republican state committee’s idea, because Lincoln lacked the national visibility Douglas enjoyed, and because, for the first few weeks, Lincoln contented himself with trailing around after Douglas, giving speeches where Douglas had spoken. This looked so lame that Lincoln was instructed to challenge Douglas to debate.

    Douglas was at first not minded to accept, largely because he didn’t need to, and because it served no purpose of his to share platforms with Lincoln.

    “The whole country knows me,” Douglas remarked, while “Lincoln, as regards myself, is comparatively unknown.”

    But Douglas was a bulldog, and the challenge looked irresistible — and easy. That was the biggest mistake of his life.

    Clinton is said to prepare extensively for debates while Trump trusts to his instincts. Do we know anything about how Lincoln and Douglas prepped, if at all?

    We have no clear idea of how Lincoln or Douglas prepared, although Douglas claimed that he “had made elaborate preparations.” What the two did do was to quote each other from their [previous] speeches, so there had to have been some homework going on … [But] there is no record of “practice sessions” for either candidate. Who, after all, thought they needed them? Lincoln and Douglas were practiced public speakers, and the format of the debates was really a sequence of speeches, much like the ones they had been giving for their entire political lives.

    Douglas stipulated at the outset that the debates would consist of an opening hour-long speech, followed by the opposing candidate speaking for an hour and a half, and then the opener finishing with a half-hour rebuttal. The candidates would take turns as the opener, with Douglas doing four openings and Lincoln three.

    Did Lincoln and Douglas read from prepared remarks?

    We know that Lincoln made up small outlines of what he wanted to say, which he kept in his coat pocket, but these were little more than talking points. Both of them seem to have had small notebooks with newspaper clippings of each other’s speeches to quote from. Everything else was extemporaneous.

    Let’s consider a few excerpts:

    Here is Douglas at Ottawa, recalling his early acquaintance with Lincoln and trying to diminish him with jocular comment:

    “He could beat any of the boys wrestling, or running a foot race, in pitching quoits or tossing a copper, could ruin more liquor than all the boys of the town together, and the dignity and impartiality with which he presided at a horse race or fist fight excited the admiration and won the praise of everybody that was present and participated.”

    And here is Lincoln at the final debate, in Alton, countering Douglas’s argument for the rule of “popular sovereignty” as to slavery in the territories and articulating the evil that had been the great issue in the nation since its founding:

    “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.”

    How do you explain this rhetorical fluency?

    One path was practice. Neither Lincoln nor Douglas had extensive educations, but what they did have in those educations was a great deal of memorization and rhetoric. No chemistry labs, no marching bands, but plenty of study of great oratory, since it was understood that the purpose of education in a democracy was to prepare for civic participation.

    The other path was experience, especially in Lincoln’s case. He had spent a career as a trial lawyer, having to learn how to persuade juries of farmers who might have been called into the box from the back of the courtroom just before a trial began. He had learned how to make a point, structure an argument, and make it stick in the memory.

    Now let’s consider what Lincoln and Douglas had to say, not how they said it. Douglas race-baited shamelessly. And what might surprise some people is that Lincoln, despite his opposition to slavery, wasn’t above equivocating about full racial equality to suit his political purposes.

    It’s often pointed out that Lincoln, especially in the fourth debate at Charleston, Ill., seemed to contradict everything an anti-slavery hero was supposed to say by conceding that he did not believe in equal civil rights for blacks. Bear in mind, though, that in Lincoln’s time, people understood that there were two kinds of rights: natural rights, with which everyone is born, and which are described in the Declaration of Independence, and civil rights, which each community determines for itself.

    Possession of natural rights is what makes you human; possession of civil rights is what makes you a full member of a community, but it’s up to the community to award them to whom it wishes. Lincoln believed that civil rights, as a community matter, were up to communities to determine, and he was not going to insist on who should be getting what, but he did insist that black people have all of the same natural rights as white people, and denying those natural rights is what made slavery an abomination.

    Were there debate moderators?

    No, there were no debate moderators. The debate platforms had room only for local notables and for the stenographic teams who were transcribing the debates in shorthand. The only other speakers were the chairmen of the platform committees, and they did nothing more than introduce Lincoln and Douglas and, when needed, called time.

    At the Ottawa debate, the crowd got noisy enough during Douglas’s rejoinder that the chair of the local Republican committee had to warn them: “I hope no Republican will interrupt Mr. Douglas. The masses listened to Mr. Lincoln attentively, and, as respectable men, we ought now to hear Mr. Douglas, and without interruption.” At Galesburg (site of the fifth debate), Lincoln himself had to rebuke his own supporters from the platform, saying, “I hope that silence will be preserved.” Lincoln and Douglas, however, did ask each other questions, but the questions were part of their speeches, and responses were not expected until the next round of debates. There was no other question time, either from reporters or the audiences.

    Huge as the televised reach of the Clinton-Trump debates may be, the live audience is small relative to the crowds that turned out for Lincoln and Douglas in scenes that were festive if not rowdy. Before the Freeport debate, a barbecue pit was dug at the courthouse square. During the debate, someone flung a piece of melon at Douglas, grazing his shoulder. Are we talking about intense participation in democracy here? Or are we talking about carnivals and brawls?

    The debates could occasionally have the atmosphere of a carnival, but only occasionally, and only if the local arrangements committees had either done a poor job of preparation or were so antagonistic that they didn’t bother to cooperate.

    At the Charleston debate [the fourth debate], Lincoln was annoyed at Douglas’s accusation that, as a member of Congress in 1848, Lincoln had refused to support the troops in the Mexican War. He turned on a member of the platform committee, Orlando Ficklin, who had served with him in Congress, “reared up full length … and caught hold of Ficklin, who sat on the stand, and said, ‘Here, Ficklin, tell the people that it is a lie.'”

    What is remarkable is, given that there was no “security” and no “crowd control,” the debates came off as sedately as they did.

    After each of the Clinton-Trump debates, we’ll read about who “won.” How did the press cover Lincoln and Douglas?

    The press in the 1850s was unapologetically partisan, and was expected to be. Editors of newspapers usually doubled as political operatives, and the papers themselves often read like party newsletters.

    Sometimes, the reports were so flagrantly biased that it was difficult to realize they were describing the same event. At the end of the Ottawa debate, a crowd of admirers rushed Lincoln, hoisted Lincoln up on their shoulders and marched him through the streets. But Lincoln was described by a Democratic newspaper as so close to nervous collapse that he could no longer stand up and had to be carried off the platform by his rescuers.

    Lincoln and Douglas weren’t even trying to win a popular vote, were they? They were just trying to influence an impending state legislative election.

    Until the 17th Amendment in 1912, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures. And this is partly why the Lincoln-Douglas debates were so remarkable, because, strictly speaking, no one was going to be voting for either one of them on Election Day in November. In fact, up till 1858, electioneering for the U.S. Senate usually took place within the state legislatures. Nevertheless, the issue between the two was so clear-cut that it was widely understood that a vote for a Republican or Democratic legislator was, in effect, a vote for Lincoln or Douglas.

    What did the debates come to mean in the longer term?

    Readers across the country scanned the texts of the debates as they were printed in newspapers, at first to see what Douglas was saying. But Lincoln’s logic eventually worked them around until the debates were being read to learn what this man Lincoln was saying. … That paved the way for Lincoln’s crucial political “screen-test” at the Cooper Institute in February 1860 and in turn for the presidential nomination. (At the Cooper Institute in Manhattan, also known as the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Lincoln spoke before Republican opinion shapers in New York. Later, during his run for the presidency, a follow-on publication of the debates went through numerous printings.)

    A lot separates us from 1858. Even so, do the Lincoln-Douglas debates hold any lessons for us today?

    Presidential debating, as it is conducted today by the Commission on Presidential Debates, has been structured as a televised media event, more like a joint press conference, than genuine debating. I doubt whether we could easily revert to the exact format of Lincoln and Douglas, but we could take a few leaves from their book which I think would greatly improve the debates and process of informing the electorate.

    Get rid of the moderators. In 1858, the idea that journalists would determine what issues to discuss and what questions to ask would have seemed profoundly offensive.

    Return the venue to a public space. Get the debates out of the chatty coziness of the sound stage into a large open forum where persuasion and logic, not just charm, would be demanded.

    Restrict the debaters to the use of a single lectern. The image of two debaters behind individual lecterns turns the debate into a match between the candidates. A single lectern forces the candidates to speak to the people.

    Richard Koenig is a NewsWorks contributor and the author of “No Place To Go,” an Amazon Kindle Single concerning the need for better sanitation in the developing world. He lives in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.