Honest Abe’s Legacy in Debate and Poem

Sunday I finished up my second book on Abraham Lincoln—or should I say the second historical account of important episodes of his life. Ever since Peter reviewed Team of Rivals, I have had my own curiosities about the most-written-about American in history. The first book I read was by the noted Lincoln historian Allen C. Guelzo called Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America. The second, The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows by Gabor Boritt. The first book was riveting, the second not so much. But lots of fun facts to go around.

    -The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a phenomenon unrepeated in American politics, and for good reason. Douglas was running a successful campaign that had the basically unpopular Lincoln on the defensive until he accepted Lincoln’s challenge. The challenge came from a Republican strategist who thought cross-examination of Douglas’s ideas would be the best hope for a victory of the newly formed political party.

    -Instead of the largely staged debates you see on television today, Lincoln and Douglas spoke for 3 hours in seven different locations around the state of Illinois. And it was only a race for senate. One would open for an hour, the other would rebut for an hour and a half, and in conclusion the opener was given a half hour reply. The order would alternate from debate to debate.

    -Douglas, a Democrat, was quite popular with Republicans at first because he had opposed James Buchanan, the Democratic president, on the issue of recognizing the slaveholding Kansas Territory’s application for statehood. The strife between Douglas and Buchanan was so great that Buchanan Democrats sought to undermine Douglas’s campaign, which raised the ire of Douglas Democrats who called the pesky subversives “Buchaneers.”

    -Douglas advocated the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” which meant that each state or territory had the right to determine for itself what position it would take on the issue of slavery. Lincoln thought the idea was a farce since it resulted in the expansion of slavery to the territories, and was constrained by the Dred Scott case which ruled to protect the rights of slaveholders from any law, made by the people or not, against slavery.

    -By the second debate Lincoln was winning support, but was put on the defensive by the ever so politically aware Douglas who race-baited Lincoln with all kinds of absurd accusations. By playing upon the fear of interracial marriage—the consequence of abolition—he inspired some of his female followers to sow letters on their dresses that read, “White men only.”

    -Illinois was a free state, but it prohibited the citizenship of blacks. The people did not want slavery legalized, not because it was an immoral institution, but because they wanted to be fully segregated from anyone of African descent.

    -To appeal to this xenophobic and racist mindset, Lincoln made some of his most shameful remarks about opposing an integrated society, but did not dwell on them for long and made a memorable quip about the legality of interracial marriage, “I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [laughter] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it.”

    -Though many critics of Lincoln today read these words and conclude he was a racist, the critics of his day didn’t believe him. Douglas made sure to draw contrasts between what Lincoln said in the north and southern parts of the state to paint him as an expedient flip-flopper, and that he was not truly consistent (i.e. racist) like he was.

    -There was a certain comedy of appearance between the two candidates as Lincoln stood a full foot taller than Douglas. Lincoln was 6’5″; Douglas was 5’4″. It was Douglas’s height combined with his political ego that earned him the nickname, “the Little Giant.”

    -Lincoln was never to be outdone in quoting Scripture. When he stood up to make his reply, Douglas quoted the Psalms, “How long O Lord must we endure the wicked?” Lincoln quoted a Proverb, “Until the days of the wicked are cut short.”

    -As the debates wore on, Douglas drank heavily which gave him a bloated and tired look, and greatly diminished the health of his voice. Since he was friends with the railroad tycoons of the day, he traveled in luxury (that only fed his habit) while the under funded Lincoln often slept in a caboose or small compartment with few amenities.

    -Lincoln ultimately lost the election, but by very narrow margins. Though it was an agonizing defeat, he was able to rally a strong Republican base and totally subverted Douglas’s political reputation among Southern Democrats and Buchananite loyalists. These two factors would help him win the presidency two years later against none other than… Stephen Douglas.

    -At Lincoln’s inauguration there was no place for President-elect to put his top hat as he was about to be sworn in. Douglas, who was standing nearby, offered to hold it. Lincoln and Douglas were certainly rivals, but in the end forged an unholy alliance. When the Confederate states seceded Douglas marched into the White House and pledged allegiance to Lincoln’s cause to reunite the Union.

    -At Gettysburg, Lincoln was not the main event. An orator named Edward Everett spoke for two hours about the battle’s historical significance, comparing it to the Battle of Marathon and the Union to ancient Athens. When Lincoln spoke, many had drifted off and were settling in for another long speech, only to find out the president was finished in two minutes.

    -Not many people found what the President said very profound, but Everett, the master orator saw its significance and commented in a letter to Lincoln, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

    -Interestingly enough the Gettysburg Address was largely ignored and overshadowed by the Emancipation Proclamation, which actually is not very eloquent. Many newspapers often totally botched reprinting the speech rendering one of its clauses, “It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the refinished work…” Was it a piece of furniture?

The common theme between the two books is Lincoln’s insistence on The Declaration of Independence’s belief that “all men are created equal.” The debate between Lincoln and Douglas was so important because it was over the nature of freedom itself. Could the resources of democracy be marshaled in favor of denying the liberty of others? If so, would not those resources be undermined by the worst form of tyranny? Guelzo observes that the pattern of the debate lives on in just about every issue before the American people. Douglas believed democracy was an end in itself that baptized the will of the people with sacred rights. Lincoln believed in a democracy with moral constraints that provided people to make moral choices, but denied them the right to make immoral ones. The conflict between these two competing ideas of freedom can be seen in the debates over abortion, gay marriage, universal health care, taxes, education, torture, labor regulations, and immigration. Though the lives and times of Lincoln and Douglas have passed, their conflict over their foundational ideas has not.

But while there is conflict there can be unity. The Gettysburg Address, according to Boritt, has become a kind of gospel that America preaches to itself and to the world declaring its identity. The speech became famous for its succinct affirmation of natural liberty, the cost it takes to preserve it against tyranny, and dedication such sacrifice inspires. Even during the memorial services at Ground Zero shortly after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 the governor of New York read the Address in honor of the fallen heroes who worked the rescue operations at the Twin Towers. It was a statement to the watching world that said, This is who we are. Lincoln new then, what we ought to know now, that what can truly unite us even as we are divided over our different interpretations of democracy is that we are a “nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”


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