Sunday, April 27, 2008

The actual Lincoln-Douglas debates: Why They Matter Just Now

Senator Clinton has challenged Senator Obama to "Lincoln-Douglas "style debates.The framing of the challenge is meant to convey the format of the proposed debates: unmoderated but governed by rules agreed upon beforehand by the two parties.

But the history and context of the actual Lincoln-Douglas debates makes the idea of debates in that style particularly appropriate now, as Democrats today are closely divided in their preference between the two remaining contenders for the Democratic Party nomination.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was running against Stephen Douglas to become one of Illinois' two Senators in Washington. The election occurred at a dramatic moment in U.S. history, just as the national split over states' rights and slavery was coming to a head. You can read the texts of each debate. Some issues will seem alien, part of another era; others will sound strangely modern.

The significance of the actual Lincoln-Douglas debates for today's Democrats lies in the fact that the two candidates for the Senate seat for Illinois agreed to let the people of their entire state hear them interact. Remember: 1858 meant no television or radio. So, Lincoln and Douglas scheduled seven debates, starting in the third week of August and ending in the middle of October, each one held in different part of the state. The candidates had to travel - not by car or plane for sure - to make each date but this was the way all the voters could hear what they had to say.

These original Lincoln-Douglas debates were hard fought, with the candidates engaged in fierce verbal jousting. But the debates were also notable for their civility and the honorable conduct of both Lincoln and Douglas. When it came to policing time, each candidate moderated himself, and at times the audience. The point was for both candidates to be heard, on a fair basis, to allow themselves to be judged by those whose votes were being sought.

Abraham Lincoln did not win this election against Stephen Douglas. But the debates made him famous. He arose to national prominence and was shortly elected to the Presidency of the United States. The rest is history.

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