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Illinois Issues Summer Book Selection

Lincoln-Douglas
debates of 1858

David Zarefsky. Lincoln, Douglas, and Slavery: In the Crucible of Public Debate. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Pp. 309 with preface, endnotes and index. $34.95 (cloth).

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 form part of American political folklore, reminding us how far the Republicans and Democrats of today have departed from the golden age. Illinois voters in that late summer and early autumn were treated to homespun humor and moving eloquence along with a thorough discussion of important issues. Imagine how pleasant it would be to return to a time when a candidate for public office might ridicule his opponent's argument, as Lincoln did Douglas's in the Ottawa debate, by describing it as "a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse." By contrast, today's politicians often borrow their shopworn "one-liners" from television advertisements, the only predictably common currency of modern American conversational exchange.

But golden ages, upon close historical examination, turn out to be fool's gold. One should always ask, "Golden for whom?'' Abraham Lincoln employed his famous chestnut about the "horse chestnut" to dismiss "anything that argues me into [Douglas's] idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro.'' The era of the debates constituted, in fact, the low point in American history for black residents of this country, as Lincoln himself suggested in a rarely quoted speech, delivered about a year before the debates, denouncing the Dred Scott decision: ". . the Chief Justice . . . plainly assumes, as a fact, that the public estimate of the black man is more favorable now than it was in the days of the Revolution. This assumption is a mistake. In some trifling particulars, the condition of that race has been ameliorated; but, as a whole, in this country, the change between then and now is decidedly the other way; and their uitimate destiny has never appeared so hopeless as in the last three or four years. In two of the five states New Jersey and North Carolina that then gave the free negro the right of voting, the right has since been taken away; and in a third - New York it has been greatly abridged; while it has not been extended ... to a single additional State, though the number of the States has more than doubled."

In his remarks Lincoln continued in that vein for quite some time. Yet as concerned as Lincoln was by the plight of black Americans, even he wanted nothing to do with advanced notions of racial equality, It was no golden age for some.

Heretofore, students of rhetoric have been more tempted than others to think of the debates as representing a high standard from which American culture has declined. Focusing merely on the manipulation of language to suit an audience makes it easy to overlook sobering historical facts: for example, that the Lincoln-Douglas debates preceded the worst political catastrophe in American history, the Civil War. The debates obviously had little utility in averting that disaster, and the doctrines expressed in them cannot be directly linked to the most worthwhile outcome of that war, the emancipation of some 3.5 million slaves. Seeking the roots of the Emancipation Proclamation in the speeches Lincoln delivered in 1858 has so foiled his defenders that they have often opted, instead, to compliment him for his rapid "growth" in statesmanship as president, years after the debates were over.

David Zarefsky, dean of the School of Speech at Northwestern University, approaches the Lincoln-Douglas debates from the academic discipline of communication studies, but he holds few simplistic illusions about the Illinois campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1858. Revealing an aware-

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ness of the mean-spirited racial assumptions and the small-minded partisan imperatives of that age, he proves himself capable of careful analysis, largely unencumbered by nostalgia. He generally avoids a narrow focus on language and style of argument and steadily reminds a reader of the broad historical context of the remarks made by Lincoln and Douglas.

Zarefsky indentifies four types of arguments used in the debates: moral, historical, legal and conspiratorial. Sorting them into such categories might well help us remember the various points made in these 21 hours of political oratory, which -when printed in 1860 filled a substantial volume with small print. A chapter of Zarefsky's book is devoted to each type of argument, and the content of the debates is fully surveyed. Two early chapters set the historical stage, another chapter describes the results and aftermath of the campaign, and a final chapter draws conclusions.

Zarefsky maintains that the conflict over moral issues could not be resolved, but that the candidates employed the other types of arguments as surrogates for the moral ones and thus sustained a genuine political discourse. This seems unconvincing, however, as the candidates could hardly have done so consciously while scrambling for political advantage. They did not pride themselves on having found a way to explore the issues despite their moral disagreements. After Lincoln lost the election, he boasted that he had made "some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I'm gone." For his part Douglas crowed in a private letter that Illinois had proved itself "faithful to the Democracy against the assaults and treasonable purposes of the abolitionists and their allies." It is not clear that Lincoln, Douglas or the American people learned much from the debates, and Zarefsky's book does not explain such an outcome.

Perhaps a trace of nostalgia remains in Zarefsky's work after all. Whatever the case, it is difficult to grasp the overall point of his analysis. In fact, after reading the book, one is tempted to borrow a line from recent political debates and ask, "Where's the beef? "

Mark Neely Jr., director of the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Ind., is the author of numerous studies on Lincoln.

July 1991/Illinois Issues/27


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