Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865). Political Debates Between Lincoln and Douglas. 1897.


HARDLY a day passes without a new contribution to Lincoln literature. Never a year but brings its quota of books, pamphlets, articles, essays, poems. An enumeration of all the titles, if such an enumeration were possible, would make a large volume, and Lincoln bibliographies bear eloquent testimony to the mass of printed material in existence which is of value. Many of these titles are in constant demand and are reissued periodically, and of this class there is no more striking example than the present volume. It is an essential item to whoever would approach Lincoln intelligently, and an indispensable unit in any collection of historical interest. There is no portion of the great War President’s printed work to which it yields in interest and importance.

These speeches “made history” in a very concrete way. Much grew out of the conflict between these men whose political careers presented such striking contrasts, whose ambitions so conflicted, from the time when their paths first met, followed nearly parallel courses, separated, met again, and finally diverged so widely. The significance of it all is heightened when we remember that their rivalry was not political only—that it was carried into social life, into that odd, spirited courtship of Mary Todd, into all the relations of private life; that is was constantly acting, directly or indirectly, to modify each man’s conduct—to spur him and sting him on to more energetic action, or to operate as a restraining influence when desperate chances were to be taken. The almost exact reversal of the relative positions occupied by these two men in the early fifties is made clear to us by the material of this book.

From the date of the first of the speeches here presented—that made on the evening of the day which saw Lincoln nominated for Senator from Illinois by the State Convention at Springfield—from the delivery of this widely-celebrated address his chance of realizing his ambition grew steadily, though perhaps not always, at least at the moment, obviously, and his star waxed brighter and brighter. And though the true crisis in the political life of “The Little Giant” dated back some four years to his concession of conscience to policy in the “unfriendly legislation” doctrine which caused his removal from the Chairmanship of the Committee on Territories, and compromised his entire future, yet it is in these pages that we see him delivered into the hands of his enemy. It was the propounding of that fateful “Question 2” at Freeport that so securely impaled him upon the point of finality. His answers, which became known as the “Freeport Doctrine,” divorced from his support the Southern Democracy, and rendered his Presidential aspirations hopeless.

Dramatic—powerful—profound—these speeches are masterpieces of debate. The man who would know what the slavery question was in the decade preceding the Rebellion finds here a statement of every point of contention and a reflection of every opinion, together with the materials upon which they were based.

The interest which they excited at the time was overwhelming. At each meeting was presented the amazing spectacle of from ten to twenty thousand people gathered to listen to rival candidates for a Senatorship! And listen they did, with an attention eager, alert and careful which the champions of few causes can command. With such audiences guaranteed them, and the further knowledge that the immediate publication of the speeches would give them a hearing no less than national in scope, it is not surprising that both discarded the usual verbiage of the political speaker—discarded, indeed, everything but essentials, and that each formulated his plea in terse sentences and compact paragraphs of the most forceful English which he could master. Clarity was never swept aside by the intensity of feeling which prevailed, heated though this was at times. No orators ever had a greater issue, no leaders ever had a more enthusiastic following or a more anxious hearing. It was more than a contest for a Senatorship or for the vindication of a party doctrine, and the men of the day so regarded it. What wonder, then, that the utterances contained in these pages are to be accounted our greatest heritage in the literature of debate?

This is Lincoln’s book. We see him in the heroic proportions in which he appeared to his friends, with the added dignity which our knowledge of his later years gives. If we had but these speeches by which to estimate him we would still recognize him as one of the great ones of all time, for these speeches are characteristic of the man—as was, indeed, his every public utterance. Comparing them with earlier efforts we are confronted at once with their striking similarities—indeed, they are identical in characteristics. His first public speech at New Salem, Illinois, March 9th, 1832, leaves with the reader the same impression of a passion for accuracy, of a sincere desire to be fully and fairly understood that is so evident in his productions of the twenty-sixth year thereafter. Again, in 1840, when these two first met in debate, there are apparent the same differences in thought, manner and expression which are here evident.

If, on the other hand, we possessed no records of Judge Douglas’s career and utterances save those which this volume supplies, the reasons for his power and popularity would be difficult to understand. In these speeches he frequently bears the aspect of a specious demagogue. In his eminent unfairness, in his dodgings of the truth, in his perversions and denials of the truth, in his employment of any resource, conditioning only that it should serve his end—arrogant, spoiled by a dozen years of political power and adulation—his appearance as the pampered idol of his party is in striking contrast to that of his adversary. His services in his brave fight for justice in Kansas, strongly opposed by the President, did much to redeem his championship in 1854 of his amendment of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, violating the Compromise of 1850, which marked the turning point of his political career. Indeed his strong opposition to the Lecompton constitution restored his lost popularity and will never be forgotten; but we can find in these debates small justification for his claims at the hands of posterity.

The proposal for the debates grew out of the Democratic “marching and music, their fizzlegigs and fireworks” which accompanied their candidate wherever he went and made whatever stand he spoke from a rallying point for thousands of enthusiastic men to whom he was the embodiment of the great and successful leader whose way was to be made glorious by noisy demonstration. Lincoln’s progress was most modest—rough wagons and freight trains frequently, the plainest of accommodations always, instead of the carriages and the special train at Douglas’s disposal at all times. The delegations and the bands and the floats and the banners were for Douglas. Lincoln and his friends recognized that here was an opportunity not to be despised. Here was a chance to encounter the great man and get a hearing with him before his friends such as would never be granted the Republican candidate under other conditions. Lincoln was the only possible opponent for Douglas—the only man who could successfully meet him in debate, but it must have taken no little courage thus to encounter the foremost debater of the Senate before his own audiences. Their ways had been side by side for twenty years and Lincoln had no misapprehension as to the power of Judge Douglas on the stump. He was perfectly aware of men’s reasonable dread of Douglas’s “denunciations, his sarcasm and his ingenious misrepresentations,” and at no time was there any indication that he under estimated his opponent’s powers. He knew—and his foreknowledge was abundantly justified—that it would need all his power of precision, all his logic and accuracy of statement to present what he would say in such form that the paraphrases and misinterpretations which it would meet at the hands of his shrewd opponent might be demonstrated to be but specious distortions. Some paragraphs in these debates, which were for the most part delivered before country audiences, stand as masterpieces of English scarcely capable of improvement. Lincoln knew well what to expect—he knew his man. And when, in response to his proposal for the discussions, Judge Douglas ungraciously acquiesced but reserved for himself the majority of closing speeches, and his own stipulations as to places and dates, Lincoln good-humoredly agreed to give him thus the odds. Lincoln had before this been magnanimous to him on an occasion when Judge Douglas privately acknowledged himself beaten and proposed an agreement whereby neither should make further speeches for six months—proposed, in fine, that as Lincoln plainly had the best of him he should be obliging enough to refuse to pursue his advantage. This was at the close of the Peoria speeches in which Judge Douglas had come off a rather poor second, and Lincoln granted his request and refused further invitations to speak. Judge Douglas left for Chicago—and on his way stopped to deliver a speech at Princeton. Douglas never had any doubts as to Lincoln’s honor, whatever he may have said in debate, and he knew that Lincoln was quite familiar with his own habitual unfairness and double-dealing.

It was a great campaign—in which the winner lost. Lincoln’s defeat was vastly better for himself and country than victory would have been. And Judge Douglas’s victory was but a day’s triumph, reserving for the vanquished champion the real triumph of large usefulness and universal acclaim. It was a battle of giants—one trained on the floor of the Senate, one within the white walls of the unpretentious court houses of the Eighth District of Illinois. Both could deal with men; either was a born orator; both were consummate politicians, and to neither of them will posterity deny the title of statesman. But Douglas, in his eloquent though superficial and illogical reasoning, appears more and more a brilliant casuist, and Lincoln more and more a man inspired by the Most High. Douglas was clever; Lincoln profound. Douglas was quick to detect and shrewd to press a point which would gain applause at the instant; Lincoln wise in planting the thoughts which occupied men’s minds after the debate was over and formed their opinions. His understanding of the minds and hearts of men was no less than genius; he was willing and able to meet them half-way—to talk with them rather than at them—to show them their own minds and thoughts rather than what he conceived their minds and thoughts should be—to keep on a level with them. In the celebrated opening paragraph of the Springfield speech he was, after all, but giving expression to a feeling which already existed as a haunting fear to many men. He was formulating in careful, precise, exact language, with perfect union of expression and sense, a truth which men felt, even though—so great was its significance, so astounding its prophesied consequence—they hesitated to acknowledge. Men were trying to ignore that very thing—were trying to persuade themselves that it was untrue—and here was one crying it from the housetops. It is worthy of notice that the two paragraphs of these speeches which his friends tried most earnestly to dissuade him from using (this, and the “Question 2”) were the most important of all to his ultimate interests and those of his party and his country.

“Abe the Giant-Killer,” his partisans called him. And these unique utterances, differing so widely in spirit from the heated, denunciatory and frequent personal indictments daily pronounced from Abolitionist platforms were the means of familiarizing Lincoln to a country which was shortly to hail him as its deliverer. On reading them one is inclined to affirm and to deny in the same breath Hill’s obiter dicta, “He was not a speaker but a talker.” One sees in imagination the uncouth figure which so disappointed Col. McClure when he first visited Lincoln—and thinks next of the brilliant, logical, masterful mind which so promptly reversed the disappointment. One feels the high nervous tension which marked the delivery of these speeches, particularly that at Charleston—without question the most spectacular of all the meetings between the two great political leaders of Illinois—where Judge Douglas was betrayed into such an ecstasy of nervousness that he paced rapidly back and forth on the platform, watch in hand, urging upon Lincoln the fact that his time had expired. And one quite understands a sentence once let fall by Judge Scott, who, referring to a dramatic moment in the delivery of the famous “lost speech” at the Bloomington Convention of May, 1856—the speech that converted to unity that much-divided body—said he was “at that moment the handsomest man I ever saw.”

The story of the publication of the debates is not without interest. They were of course printed as soon as delivered—the whole country was giving close attention to this campaign. They were first published collectively in 1860, when they were put forth by the Republican State Central Executive Committee of Ohio after a formal request had been made to both the principals. They were regarded as luminous and triumphant expositions of Republican doctrine, and a document of great practical value and compelling interest in the then approaching Presidential contest. As first regularly published the book was issued by Follet, Foster & Company, Columbus, Ohio, in 1860. This edition is now rare—especially so in the first issue of the first edition which differs somewhat from subsequent impressions of the same year which bear, of course, the same date. The work has been several times reprinted, from half a dozen cities, and there is every reason to believe that it will live and be read and re-read so long as Americans shall retain their patriotic spirit and remember with love and veneration the first Martyr President.
C. L. M.