Lincoln’s debates and ours: a comparison of the past and present

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James Petros
Contributing Writer

Abraham Lincoln’s upcoming birthday, which falls on Feb. 12, inevitably calls to mind his famous series of 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas. Compared with the highly publicized and closely scrutinized debates of today’s political scene, those between Lincoln and his incumbent rival have earned a place in history by establishing public debate as an appropriate forum for promoting one’s views.

As history attests, these debates proved a great success for Lincoln, serving as the spring-board that launched him into the national spotlight.  But aside from Lincoln’s mere presence, there was something else that made these debates far more stimulating and intelligent than our own.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were focused.  Unlike today’s debates which feature many themes, subjects and questions from both the media and everyday Americans, only one theme prevailed between these two men. Slavery was the entire focus of all seven debates. Lincoln and Douglas did not even bother to discuss other issues, like economics or foreign policy. The sole purpose of these debates was to have the two candidates for the Illinois Senate-seat argue the morality and legitimacy of slavery and the proper policies for dealing with it.

They also spoke longer, and as a result, the debates were more substantive.  The first candidate spoke for a solid 60 minutes, followed by the opposition with a 90-minute rebuttal, and closing with a 30-minute response by the first speaker.

This format differs completely from today’s standards, where any candidate can fire back at his opponent with a brief talking point.  With these longer time segments, Lincoln and Douglas were both forced to take an intensive look at one issue and prepare lengthy and substantive speeches on it.

These debates were quite intellectual, so much so that Lincoln published his various speeches during these seven debates as a book, after he lost the election to Douglas.

The above criticisms of our current debate standards aside, there are some similarities between these two eras of political rhetoric. The Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Republican primary debates both were major public spectacles that allowed lesser candidates to voice their views.

In 1858, Lincoln gained national attention, even though he was only running for a Senate seat.  Similar to Lincoln, candidates like Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have been able to espouse their ideologies and promote their policies because of their presence in the 19 debates held thus far.

The participation of the audience also has not changed in the past century and a half.  In both eras, the passionate supporters of the various candidates have been vibrant, ardent and hard to ignore.

Lincoln generated the same energetic response from his supporters as Ron Paul does now.

Without a doubt, the debates of 1858 were better than those of this current political era.  Unlike today, moderators and candidates were not able to ask and answer impertinent questions. Moreover, spectators left with something more substantive than talking points and cherry-picking from their favorite and least favorite candidates.

But in some ways, such as their highlighting lesser-known candidates and providing an occasion to shout one’s support, our current debates are quite similar to those of Lincoln’s day.

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