Lincoln-Douglas Debate audiobook: civics, history and rhetoric lesson in 16 hours

I've spent the past week listening to BBC America's 16-hour dramatic reading of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, America's most mythologized political discourse. I've been reading about the Debates since I was a teenager reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (he holds them up as a substantive counterpoint to the soundbite-heavy, content-lite Reagan-Dukakis Mondale debates), but I'd never actually read them.

I'm glad I did.

Not because the Lincoln-Douglas debates live up to the myth (they don't -- and probably nothing could) but because of all the flaws and human foibles they disclose about these two towering orators out of America's past.

The recordings are performed by David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, The Bourne Ultimatum) and Richard Dreyfuss (American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, etc). Strathairn sounds pretty much what you'd expect Lincoln to sound like: folksy, a little unpolished, humble, but sharp. Dreyfuss plays Douglas for a goad, nasal and grandstanding (and judging from the text, this isn't a bad guess at how he must have sounded).

(For those of you unfamiliar with the debates: Abraham Lincoln stood as the first-even Republican candidate for the senate, running against Judge Stephen A Douglas, an incumbent from Illinois; they conducted seven debates across the state, focusing on the question of slavery.)

The debates start out with Lincoln on the back foot. Douglas has his number, exactly the right combination of insinuation and accusation to get Lincoln frothing and shouting and interrupting, a spectacle that goes on until Lincoln is literally dragged off the stage by his buddies, who audibly mutter warnings about alienating the crowd (stenographers from the Chicago papers got every word).

But as the debates wear on, Lincoln manages to get his temper under control and to resist Douglas's provocations, and once he does that, he reveals himself as a swift thinker-on-his-feet, rebutting Douglas smoothly and lucidly, bounding out of his seat when his time starts with absolutely unbeatable logic (he's also funny and sometimes rude, as when he wonders aloud if Douglas has gone insane, or tells a hilarious joke about a fisherman's wife whose drowned husband is dredged up filled with eels) ("Take the eels out and set him again.")

Douglas, by contrast, is so relentlessly, stodgily on-message that it becomes a chore to listen to him, as he repeats his points again and again (and again and again), sometimes word for word. Douglas was the senior politician (Lincoln having only served a single senate term at this point), and he relies on his seniority more than his wit to carry the day, running off the same phrases until they lose all meaning and power.

What was surprising to me was how much of the debate hinged on what had been said previously, and where. Lincoln wants to prove that something was said in Congress, but he has to fetch up some gigantic, leatherbound book by stagecoach to the next city in order to prove it. They debate newspaper accounts, times and dates, items from the federal register -- if Google had existed at the time, the debates probably could have been dropped from 16 hours to about three.

There's also an enormous amount of attention lavished on what the framers of the constitution meant by "All men are created equal" (specifically, whether black men were part of "all men"). In this regard, the slavery question under debate sounds an awful lot like other constitutional debates, niggling over the meaning and sense of the foundational document of the Republic. But the majority of modern constitutional debate I've been privy to treats the constitution as sacred because it's the rules of the game, the thing you need to agree to in order to be an American. By contrast, Douglas and Lincoln argue about the framers' intent because the framers were infallible geniuses, and if they intended slavery for the union, then slavery it should be. This scriptural debate is almost talmudic in character.

The debate progresses by inches (largely thanks to Douglas's stubborn refusal to stop repeating himself), but as it rises and falls, both of the men lose the veneer of civility and resort to the kinds of smears that we're apt to shake our heads at in modern debate, the kind of thing of which we say, "Oh, to have the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and their substantive civility!"

But Lincoln and Douglas accuse each other of being liars, oath-breakers, conspirators, and say that their respective views are indications of insanity. And the audience hoots and hollers and cheers them on (thousands of people standing for three hours while Lincoln and Douglas go at it hammer and tongs in the August heat -- it's no wonder that they were glad of a little prurient fire).

Douglas's main objection to Lincoln is that he is a radical who wants to end slavery immediately. He claims that all of Lincoln's reasonable middle-ground talk is just code for a revolutionary agenda that he is sure to unleash on the nation, bringing it to the brink of collapse through violent upheaval. In this accusation, it's hard to fault him. (There's plenty else to fault him for -- for one thing, he's clearly working to bring slavery to the whole country, and he's a racist even by the low standards of 1858).

And Lincoln? Well, when it comes to race, he's kind of a jerk, though perhaps not compared to many of his contemporaries. He repeatedly affirms that he does not want to end slavery abruptly, but over a gradual process lasting a century or so, fairly compensating slave "owners" for the loss of their "property." And while he speaks of slavery as a great evil, he nevertheless promises that he does not want to give black people citizenship, the vote, or the power to sit on juries or intermarry. He avers that black people are racially inferior, "incapable of self-government," but that they are nevertheless entitled to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." This isn't Lincoln the liberator as we know him -- and while many of his contemporaries were worse, there were plenty of comrades in his cause with the courage to speak of true equality.

One thing you can say about Lincoln, though: he was a fast learner. Over the seven debates, he gets snappier, more controlled, sharper, while Douglas degenerates into Cheney-esque sour muttering. By the end of things, Lincoln feels like a winner (and despite this, he lost the election!) (but won the next one).

BBC America is selling the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a DRM-free MP3 download through Zipidee for $30. This 18 hours is a crash course in rhetoric, politics and history, and I say it's cheap at the price.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates (DRM-free MP3 download)

Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 on Wikipedia, Lincoln-Douglas debates text on Google Books,

(Image: Lincoln debating douglas.jpg, public domain image from Wikimedia


  1. I was a teenager and not terribly politically involved, but I completely missed the Reagan-Dukakis debates.

  2. Excellent post for inauguration day. The parallel is in Lincoln’s expression of a broader vision for the country’s future, while Douglas clung to the status quo.

  3. Cory,
    With Lincoln being thoroughly deified by so many historians, it’s important to read at least a little bit of Thomas DiLorenzo’s work… if you’re interested in that part of history.

    His most important book is “The Real Lincoln”, but there are a number of good essays and articles out there with just a taste of DiLorenzo’s point of view.

    Here is just one of many:

    and here is an archive of his work:

  4. I first learned of Lincoln’s historical duplicity (a comical term I use when historical figures turn out not to correspond very closely with their historical mythologies, which is almost always the case)in Zinn’s People’s History of the U.S.

    Lincoln gave two very differing campaign speeches in Illinois–one more radical in the northern part of the state, and one more centrist in the southern part. He argued two very differing views of slavery in the U.S. I was shocked, a little heart broken, and very 18 years old.

    I think of him now whenever I see an Obama appointment that doesn’t feel progressive enough.

  5. #7:

    Sir, I will say, with all due respect, that when I see the website of one Lew Rockwell brought up in conversation I find most disconcerting. I have seen a great deal of erroneous postings come from it, and I am inclined to question the veracity of anything posted there.

  6. A Followup: I find Mr. DiLorenzo’s work highly questionable. For one, he is a member of the League of the South, and organization of avowed secessionists.

    There also appears to be legitimate criticism of his book:

    While Lincoln was by no means perfect, given the above facts, I think it behooves one to examine the work with a critical eye.

  7. Nice article – thanks. Before you corrected “Reagan-Dukakis”, I’d been guessing you were referring to the Bush-Dukakis debates. Dukakis had run a debate show on PBS in the 70s, and knew what good debate was about, so I’d been surprised by how thoroughly he choked when he had to do his own debating.

    As far as Lincoln being the “Liberator” goes, the Emancipation Proclamation was unfortunately not issued in 1861 when he took office, but in 1863 when the war wasn’t going well and his popularity polls were down.

  8. “All men are created equal” is a basic principal of the United States, but it doesn’t appear in the Constitution. It’s in the Declaration of Independence, which, unlike the Constitution, is not a law.

  9. KRSMAV: so what? The fact is is so self-evidently obvious, it does not need a Law…anyhow, the Law is a discrimination machine: it discriminates between the innocent and the guilty; it discriminates between the enforceable and unenforceable contract; amongst those found to be guilty of an offense, it discriminates between those who deserve a lesser, from those who deserve a greater, period behind bars.
    We are created equal, but that says nothing as to what we may become, whether due to our own actions, or the actions of others (eg one’s wealthy parents).
    As to US slavery, excuse my ignorance, but when and how did it get limited to blacks only (if it ever was)? Who was the last white/native american/non-black slave in the US, and when and why were they emancipated (if ever they were prior to Lincoln’s proclamation)?
    IIRC, the British Empire forbade slavery, once a sufficient number of the Colonial natives became fellow-Christians. Also IIRC that argument cut no ice in the US Southlands. If so, what was the nature of the prohibition against white slaves in the USA? Was it simply by custom, or was it a matter of Law?

  10. For the bicentennial (of Lincoln’s birth), they’ve been re-enacting the Lincoln-Douglas debates at the original sites (or as near as possible) around the state. Y’all come visit us, y’hear? The new Lincoln Museum in Springfield is to DIE for.

    Every schoolchild in Illinois knows that Lincoln, for all we worship him in these parts, had a mouth on him, and could be pretty profane and pretty snarky when the mood struck him. He even engaged in dueling, though it was illegal in Illinois. With broadswords. True story.

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