Lincoln--way taller than Douglas.
Whenever there was a debate during the last year or so of this endless campaign, my dad would complain about how useless they were because no one got a chance to really say anything, they were all about the soundbites, etc., etc., and why couldn't they do a Lincoln-Douglas style debate, where each candidate got to speak for an hour or so? I would usually point out to him that people nowadays wouldn't have the patience to sit through that, and really, out of the available candidates, was there anyone whom you'd want to hear speak for an hour? And he'd sigh, and long for the good old days he never personally knew.
So after hearing all this Lincoln-Douglas nonsense forever, imagine how excited I was to read a review of Allen Guelzo's Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, an account of the 1858 Illinois senatorial faceoff. Now that was a book I had to read, as it fell under the category of subject you hear a lot about but don't really KNOW that much about. That was last March. I reserved the book right away and it didn't become available until the beginning of October.
I don't know if any book can live up to the anticipation that comes with a seven month wait. Between that, and my general scatterwittedness right now, I don't know if I can give a really fair assessment of this book. It took me weeks to read it, which is a bad sign--it wasn't a long book either. And when I was trying to read it, I felt like my mind was melting or like I was undergoing some kind of weird brain-word disconnect. I stared at the pages and the sentences seemed to break apart before my eyes, with random words and phrases exploding in different sized print, with no order and no meaning. I found myself constantly backtracking and having to read pages over and over and over, and even then still feeling like I wasn't getting it. Either I'm getting really, really stupid...or I was a little bored.
I'm too busy and too overwhelmed (and maybe too stupid) to give a really in-depth summary, which I'll soon regret, as my main purpose for writing these things is so that I'll remember the important details in the book I'm writing about. I guess I'll just say that Guelzo gives a little bit of background to both Douglas and Lincoln's careers, sets up the state of Illinois and national politics at the time, then launches into account of each of the seven debates that took place as the two men campaigned for senator. He gives a scorecard for each debate that summarizes the points each brought up, as well as any denial of the charges brought up by the other. And...that's the basic structure. It's pretty workmanlike.
The fascinating thing about these storied debates is that although Lincoln and Douglas attracted large, passionate crowds, they weren't really campaigning for themselves--remember, until 1913, US senators were chosen by state legislators, not direct elections. The people they spoke in front of did not actually get to vote for either man. Essentially, even though they spoke their own views and own positions, they were advocating for their party; if enough Republicans got elected to the legislature, Lincoln would win; if Democrats won out, Douglas would get the position. (And don't feel bad if you didn't know this about the senatorial appointments--I didn't until a few years ago when I was researching something. Another stellar job by the American public school system.) In the end, Lincoln didn't get the right number of Republcian supporters elected to win the senate spot. However, the debates gave him a national reputation that helped pave the way for his presidential bid in 1860; at each debate a stenographer copied down the men's words, gave them to a transcriber, who then telegraphed them to the press. With each passing debate, the interest increased, until seemingly the whole nation was caught up in the Illinois senate race.
These kind of long-form debate were essentially trade off of speeches. The main issue, of course, was slavery. Douglas had staked his reputation on the doctrine of popular sovereignty, something that allowed some wiggle room on the issue of whether slaves would be allowed in each new state or not. Lincoln, while not a firebreathing abolitionist, had long believed that slavery was just wrong, but that was hardly the majority at the time--interestingly, , his now famous "A house divided cannot stand" speech was seen by many as potentially career ending. Afterwards, in the interest of saving some votes he might otherwise have lost with a squeamish public, Lincoln hedged by proclaiming he believed that the African slaves had natural rights--as in they were born equals as men under God's eyes--but not civil rights, which would give them the right to vote and be treated as equals under the law. Douglas and his camp, needless to say, ignored this fine definition and campaigned with racial scare tactics; at one rally, young women on floats wore dresses with cards on their skirts that read "white men only."
For each debate, Guelzo describes the local political climate, the venue, each candidate's arrival, and the reactions of the crowd. He includes some quotes from letters and journals, but not a great deal from each man's speeches; he tends more towards summaries. Maybe he thought the material was (or should be) already familiar. There are less from the newspaper accounts than I would have expected as well, and I don't recall a lot of first person, attendee reaction--though note that "don't recall" with care. I had to return the book to the library and can't refer to it so if I missed something or am forgetting percentages of material, apologies.
There are some interesting details. I particularly liked a section about how both men used speaking techniques that were straight from the popular rhetoric textooks of the day, things like "raise arms to express admiration but never above the eyes," "express anger with a closed fist," "speak slowly at first," etc. One textbook apparently listed fifteen different arm positions to express different things. All this precision about gestures may seem a little bit silly now, but remember that the speakers weren't miked and still had to communicate to large crowds. Actually, Guelzo never really addresses how they managed to speak to such large gatherings of people. Did people in the back just accept that they weren't going to hear anything said? Did the candidates shout their whole speeches? He does point out that although Douglas was the more famed speaker, he wore down over the last few debates; his exhaustion, combined with heavy drinking, limited his effectiveness. In contrast, Lincoln held up well and bought some credit just by appearing more vibrant.
Somehow, though, this book just didn't come to life for me. Guelzo has written a number of books about Lincoln and obviously must have a great deal of feeling for the subject, but there was something about the writing that didn't draw me in. The only time I felt any passion or excitement from Guelzo was in the last chapter, when he writes about how the true meaning of the debates is not in their role in Lincoln's election to the presidency, but for how Lincoln's stance on slavery showed that a democracy must have some kind of moral stance to have meaning; Douglas's kind of democracy, Guelzo writes, in which pure sovereignty rules and every choice is made by individuals concerned only with their own rights, is a hollow kind indeed. Libertarians, run!
I feel uneasy about casting judgement on this book; as noted above, I was reading it in a very scattered state of mind, in bits and pieces, and not always with full concentration. I want to blame myself for not loving this book; maybe I didn't give it the best opportunity to make me love it. But I can't help but feel that as busy as I am rightnow, if I had really been captivated by this book, I would have found some way to devote the time to it. I was never compelled to, though, and I'm sorry for that, because it's a worthy topic.
One thing I did realize while reading this book is that I need to read more about Lincoln. I haven't read a Lincoln bio since about second grade, and while I don't recall all the details, I'm just guessing it wasn't particularly in-depth. From what I read in Guelzo's book, though, I'd like to learn more. Lincoln: interesting guy. I know, that's a real revelation. I'm a little late to that party. Sorry. Have I mentioned that I'm kind of tired?