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