To triumph in their 1858 contest, Lincoln and Douglas each had to score politically on the platform and in the press—and do it with style.
“No,I do not want to go into a debate with Lincoln.”
Stephen A. Douglas, incumbent U.S. Senator from Illinois, had little if anything to gain by debating his challenger. The campaign was only two weeks old,and Lincoln was already lagging behind Douglas.Worse than that, he was beginning to look ridiculous “trailing”Douglas from place to place. The cure, then, in the mind of Republican State Chairman Norman Judd, would be in squaring Lincoln and Douglas against each other on the same stand. Horace Greeley actually broached the idea in the New York Tribune.The Chicago Tribune ran its own “suggestion” that “Mr.Douglas and Mr.Lincoln agree to canvass the State together.”Lincoln,who had been perfectly content with the follow-around strategy, was not thrilled with the “suggestion.” Douglas, he argued,“was the idol of his party,” and, in front of crowds that Douglas might pack to his own advantage, it was likely that “the imperious and emphatic style of his oratory” would allow “Judge Douglas said so” to clinch a debate and be written up in the newspapers as a Douglas triumph.
Just by appearing with Abraham Lincoln,Douglas realized, he was conceding to him a measure of equal standing. He had no reason to cave in to the pressure of newspapers.
And yet he did.
From that moment on, Lincoln and Douglas would make history—not only in the substance of their arguments but also in the style of their presentations.They would be dependent,too,on an increasingly omnipresent and powerful press to make their case.
Douglas may have had any numbers of reasons for agreeing to debate Lincoln.Perhaps he was nettled by the Republican papers’ indelicate chirping that Douglas was showing “the white feather,” skulking “behind the appointments of the immaculate Democratic State Central Committee.” Perhaps, at the end of the day, he simply could not resist the lure of one more risk.Whatever the reason, when Douglas responded to Lincoln’s challenge, he recited the full list of his objections and then, at the end,proposed an alternative.They would debate,but not share the platform at places around the state where Douglas had already scheduled “appointments.”
They would appear together for just seven debates,and they would do so “at one prominent point in each congressional district in the state.”There were nine congressional districts,but since Lincoln and Douglas had already spoken in Chicago in the 2nd District,and in Springfield in the 6th District,Douglas deleted those two.Also,Douglas noted, he would do the picking of each “prominent point.” His choices were Freeport in the 1st District, where the Republican Elihu Washburne was the frontrunner;Ottawa in Owen Lovejoy’s 3rd District;Galesburg in the 4th District, where the Republican William Kellogg was the incumbent; Quincy in the 5th; Charleston in the 7th;Alton in the 8th;and Jonesboro in the 9th.“The mode of conducting the debate”would have to be agreed upon later;the dates and the hours would be determined by Douglas’ schedule and “at any of these places I must insist upon you meeting me at the time specified.” Lincoln could take it or leave it.
He took it.Not that Lincoln had much choice.Lincoln bridled at Douglas’“insinuations of attempted unfairness on my part,” but he agreed, grudgingly,“for us to speak at the seven places you have named.”
As for the “mode,”Douglas’proposal was simple—he would speak for an hour at Ottawa, Lincoln would reply for an hour and a half,and Douglas would conclude with a half hour rebuttal.They would switch the order at each place.
Behind Norman Judd’s proposal for debate between Lincoln and Douglas was a long history of parliamentary debating stretching back to the 17th century and rein- forced in the American republic by the great debates of Senators Daniel Webster and Robert Y.Hayne in 1830.
What was peculiar about debates of the era was that they were not,in the strictest sense,debates at all.They were sequences of speeches with only the most meager nod in the direction of interaction between speakers.The debate manuals of the 19th century—for example,James McElligott’s The American Debater of 1855—separated debating into two overall categories,one of them for “deliberative assembles,” which was little more than a guide to parliamentary rules of order, the other for “debating societies,”which featured scholastic-style statements of questions that participants addressed, both affirmative and negative, in a highly stylized rotation. Joseph Bartlett Burleigh’s Legislative Guide of 1856 also gave rules for “Order in Debate,”which were really only the oversight of an orderly sequence of members’ speeches. But the most well-known debates of the American 19th century were sequential-speech events “at the same places on the same day,” which was “the usual, almost universal western style of conducting a political campaign.”
This meant, in practical terms, that debating was less an event for intelligent persuasion than it was for political declamation. The American Orator of 1819, in fact, listed “reading, recitation, declamation, oratory, and acting” but not actual debate as the “general objects of public speaking.” Caleb Bingham’s much-reprinted Columbian Orator promised examples of “Orations, Addresses, Exhortation from the Pulpit, Pleadings at the Bar, Sublime Description, Debates”but actually delivered neither examples of debate nor instruction in debate proceedings.What’s more,the event itself took on the trappings of a carnival, with “each candidate having a sort of triumphal entry, at the head of his followers, into the towns and neighborhoods where they meet.”This, as one Richmond newspaper sniffed, was an invitation for things “to pass from words to blows,”because “the passions of the populace so frequently override the law.”
If there was any clear goal in view with sequential-speech debates, it seemed principally to be getting transcribed and reported in newspapers or published afterward as books. Either way, debate was more often an affirmation of print rather than a triumph of voice.
Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ, conducted his debates with a hired stenographer on hand, taking down his words in primitive shorthand.Newspapers thus extended the range of debate and confirmed the dominance of sequential speech style debating, since sequential-speech debating translated easily into lively political reading matter.
After all, politics were what made the world of newspapers go round.Although American newspapers began as organs of commercial news,they lost little time after the Revolution in transforming themselves into partisan political sheets, and by the 1850 census,only 5 percent were independent of some form of political party affiliation or control.
What gave the newspapers added heft in the political process was the introduction in the 1830s of the Napier steam-powered press,which could produce 5,000 printed pages an hour, and, in 1846,of Robert Hoe’s rotary-cylinder “Lightning Press,”which allowed the volume of printed pages to rise to 20,000 an hour. By these means, a single large sheet of newsprint could be printed,folded twice and cut,and thus yield a four-page,singlesheet daily newspaper costing only a penny a day to purchase.
As production costs fell,a whole new market for newspapers opened up. By the 1830s, New York City alone had a daily newspaper circulation of 153,000 (for a city of 500,000 residents).Newspapers made up anywhere from half to 95 percent of the circulating mail in any given year between 1820 and 1860. In 1858, the Chicago post office handled 5.2 million news papers and 5.6 million letters in just three months’ time. Each of these copies had a pass-around readership of anywhere from seven to 20 people, and the indulgent rates charged for circulating newspapers in the U.S. mail guaranteed that 20 percent of them went out free of charge.“The Newspaper Press,”complained one critic of the newspaper free-for-all,“controls the state and the church;it directs the family,the legislator,the magistrate and the minister.None rise above its influence,none sink below its authority.”
While the steam press expanded the newspapers’ power of circulation,the invention of the electrical telegraph in 1844 collapsed the time and space between one point and another in the republic and permitted next-to-immediate communication of events at one end of the country with newspapers at the other.Within 15 years, there were upward of 50,000 miles of telegraph line strung like webs across the United States and more than 5 million messages sent per year.
As early as 1849, the sheet volume of newspaper traffic on the telegraph lines was so great that the principal New York papers—including Greeley’s Tribune and James Gordon Bennett’s Herald—created the Associated Press to lease a telegraph line to Halifax so that New York readers could get commercial news of ships before they docked in New York.Reporters could be hired at great distances to telegraph “exclusive” reports or transcripts of speeches and debates taken down by a stenographer. George Prescott’s History, Theory and Practice of the Telegraph boasted that a New York governor’s speech of 5,000 words, delivered in Albany, would be set in type and ready to print two hours later in a New York City newspaper.
Yet despite the electrical conduit between debates and newsprint,the debates were still speech events. Speaking and speeches were both heard and seen, and their total effect depended on the cumulative impact of both.They would not only be transcribed and published for newspaper subscribers and their circle of friends and borrowers,they would also be events to be reported in the same newspapers.That coverage kept more than enough pressure on Lincoln and Douglas to perform as speakers as well as authors of words bound for print.Only a few years before,George William Curtis,the associate editor of Putnam’s Magazine,had wondered whether the steam-powered press would force “oral instruction…to yield the palm, without dispute, to written lecture.”
Instead, the two had grown up “side by side…governed by similar circumstances, and tending alike to the elevation of the masses.”The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow regretted that Americans saw literature as “effeminate”compared to the “huge, two-fisted sway” of popular speaking.The easiest proof of that was the outsized popularity of Josiah Holbrook’s lyceums.Holbrook,who established the lyceum circuit for popular lecturing in the 1820s, saw the number of lyceums grow to more than 1,000 within a decade and 4,000 a decade after that. Celebrity orators were rewarded with assemblies of 1,500 to 3,000 people, depending upon their star power.
Two more different speakers in both style and appearance could scarcely have been imagined than Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.“I have never seen any other two public men appearing on the same platform so unlike in stature,” remembered one onlooker decades later. Standing together, Lincoln towered over Douglas by a foot. Even that foot seemed exaggerated since Douglas’stumpy legs and round and paunchy torso made him look like Humpty-Dumpty in a toupee, while Lincoln’s height was entirely in his legs and gave audiences the impression of a scarecrow come to life. He was “crooked-legged, stoop-shouldered…and anything but handsome in the face,” wrote one Illinois editor who saw Lincoln speak for the first time in 1856.The journalist Henry Villard’s first impression of him was that he “is a man of some years already—I assume in his sixties” (Lincoln was actually 49 years old in 1858). Seymour Thompson, who watched Lincoln speaking at Freeport, thought that Lincoln appeared sluggish when beginning to speak.“His mouth was weak,”and “his eyes…seemed wholly dead,snake-like.”Even his old Whig friend Joseph Gillespie admitted,“Mr.Lincoln had the appearance of a slow thinker.” But as soon as he “had fairly entered upon his theme,his stooping posture ceased.”
Lincoln’s law partner,William H. Herndon, also remembered Lincoln’s habit of “sometimes shooting out that long bony forefinger of his to dot an idea or to express a thought resting his thumb on his middle finger.” Less frequently, when “he was moved in some indignant and half-mad moment against slavery,”he would “extend his arms out…above his head at an angle of about fifty degrees,hands open or clenched according to his feelings and ideas,” which resulted in what Villard described as an “almost absurd, up-and-down and sidewise” movement.
Beyond that degree of animation Lincoln rarely ventured. Most of the time he rose to speak with his hands locked behind him,“the back part of his left hand resting in the palm of his right hand,” according to Herndon, and then moving his stilllocked hands “to the front of his person,” slowly “running one thumb around the other,”and sometimes grasping the “left lapel of his coat…with his left hand, his left thumb erect.” Herndon recalled that Lincoln “never moved much about on the stand or on the platform when speaking.”William Kellogg only occasionally saw him “as he reached some climax in his arguments” move “to the front of the platform…and with a peculiar gesture hurl the point,so to speak,at his audience,”and then “walk slowly backward” and “again resume his speech.”
Douglas, by contrast, was a hurricane of passion. One observer at the Alton debate thought Douglas spoke “in a very blustering manner,and so to speak,‘frothed at the mouth’when he became excited.”When he first arrived in Congress, John Quincy Adams irritably described him as “ranting out his hour in abusive invective, his face convulsed, his gesticulations frantic.”Harriet Beecher Stowe,watching Douglas in action on the Senate floor in 1856,described him as charging into floor debate “horse and foot.”He had “a quick,jerky,fiery way”and would emphasize his points “by shaking his head and seeming to dart forward…like the spring of a panther,” rather than merely extending a Lincolnesque finger.
He was “impetuous” and “denunciatory,” added Stowe. He “paces the platform to and fro,very seldom stopping,and standing in one place to address the people.”
On the other hand, in an age when too many congressmen “stammer and boggle through a speech, finishing one half of the sentences improperly,and leaving a good portion of the other half not finished at all,” Douglas was a model of verbal precision and power. Republican and GermanAmerican leader Carl Schurz reluctantly admitted that Douglas’ “sentences were well put together, his points strongly accentuated,his argumentation seemingly clear and plausible.”And “he had the voice,not of a little giant but of a big one,”with an “orotund quality,like the roar of a lion.”
Lincoln thought it was “impossible to get the advantage”of Douglas in debate because “even if he is worsted, he so bears himself that the people are bewildered and uncertain as to who has the better of it.”His sentences were also short,and since “his bass voice was incapable of great speed,” he tended to speak at a rate of about 120 to 125 words a minute,with generous pauses between words or phrases.The National Era described him deliberately speaking “each word as follows:‘I—disagreed—and— Mr.—Buchanan—told—me—if—I—did—not—go—with— him—die.’”
Lincoln’s voice was a high,piercing tenor,pitched almost to shrillness,with a distinct border-state twang which lengthened an a to an e (chair to cheer) and shortened diphthongs from ai to i (again to agin). He spoke more slowly than Douglas, at about 100 words a minute, and tended to bunch “several words with great rapidity,”then come to a word or phrase he wished to emphasize “and let his voice linger and bear hard on that,” then “rush to the end of the sentence like lightning.” He repeated himself and sometimes broke his own train of speech with an additional explanation or qualification.
“Exactness in the statement of things was a peculiarity with him,”recalled one Springfield neighbor.“When he was asked a question and gave an answer it was always characteristic, brief, pointed,apropos,out of the common way and manner,and yet exactly suited to the time, place and thing.”
Herndon tried to persuade him to speak more swiftly and evenly, but Lincoln demurred:“I am compelled by nature to speak slowly, but when I do throw off a thought…it has force enough to cut its own way and travel at a greater distance.” Much as his voice had the tonal quality of a steam pipe, it was also penetrating and could be heard at unusual distances without any extra effort on his part.Attorney Charles Zane asked him if speaking for an hour at a time exhausted him.“No,”Lincoln replied,“I can speak three or four hours at a time without feeling weary.” Mary Cunningham Logan, who had been tutored in the social aspects of politics by Douglas’wife,thought that Douglas “won your personal support by the magnetism of his personality,” but Lincoln “seemed able to brush away all irrelevant matters of discussion,and to [be] earnestly and simply logical.” Give them each five minutes, and Douglas “would make the greater impression.”Give them an hour,“and the contrary would be true.”As David Davis, a prominent judge in the 8th circuit,remarked,“Lincoln is the best stump speaker in the State.”
It would be charming to think of these different speaking styles as some form of untutored revelation of their different characters.But both manners of speaking were learned styles, something that could be seen on the pages of the popular rhetoric textbooks.The Columbian Orator dictated that to “express admiration,and addresses to Heaven,”the arms “must be elevated, but never raised above the eyes”—in just the fashion of Lincoln’s “fifty degrees”of angle—while in “expressions of compunction and anger,” the hands should be closed—as Lincoln’s were “according to his feelings or ideas.”
Like Lincoln again,the Columbian urged speaking slowly at the beginning because this “has the appearance of modesty,and is best for the voice.”The American Orator and William Scott’s Lectures on Elocution diagrammed no fewer than 15 positions for the arms, along with four “plates” of gestures, and both the American Orator and Epes Sargent’s The Standard Speaker recommended that both arms be “projected forward in authority” or “spread extended in admiration.” But it was the right arm and hand that were the most “natural” sources of authority in Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and “to be employed more frequently than the left.”And “direct periods commencing with participles of the present and past tense” must have a “long pause and rising inflection”inserted between them.Such pauses, as Douglas discovered,“excite uncommon attention, and consequently raise expectation.”
More than the textbooks, however, it was the political cultures of both Douglas’ Democratic Party and Lincoln’s Whig Republicans that dictated elements of each debater’s style.The Whigs, as the party of the middle class, placed an enormous premium on “reasonableness,costiveness,correctness,and frost.” Daniel Webster, the greatest Whig orator, aimed for what was “elevated,severe,sober and argumentative.”It was Henry Clay’s claim that Whigs appeal not to “the feelings and passions of our Countrymen” but “to their reasons and their judgment.”
Andrew Jackson,meanwhile,was the model of the Romantic Democrat, full of “terrible” passions against the seemingly plausible rationalizations of the “moneyed interests.”And those who paid Jackson the kind of homage Douglas paid, followed it by speaking as Jackson spoke, full of “unhemmed latitude, coarseness, directness, live epithets, expletives, words or opprobrium,resistance,”in which “the neck is stretched out,the head forward,often nodding and shaken in a menacing matter against the object of the passion.”
The moment Lincoln and Douglas would cross the first debate platform they would be carrying with them not just their own ideas and arguments but a thick skein of ideas on speech and print,on newspapers and politics,and on passion and reason. They would become what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “representative men,” and they would drag the whole of American culture up onto the platform with them.
Allen C. Guelzo is the first double Lincoln Laureate in the history of both the Lincoln Prize and the Abraham Lincoln Institute Prize. He teaches at Gettysburg College.
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.