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Knox College Administration Building
Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois
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Lincoln and Douglas in Debate

Author Interview with Allen C. Guelzo

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas climbed onto a platform outside the new administration building at Knox College to hold their fifth joint debate in a hotly-contested race for the U.S. Senate. After the 150th anniversary of that event, we talked to author Allen C. Guelzo in Galesburg, Illinois, about the debates and their impact on American history.

Come along as we discuss the background of these stirring times, the myths that cling to them, the issues that emerged, and the David-and-Goliath drama which still fascinates Americans today.

Author Allen C. Guelzo    Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America
Allen C. Guelzo
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Allen C. Guelzo is a Pennsylvania historian who served Gettysburg College as the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program. A widely published author, two of his previous Lincoln books won the prestigious Lincoln Prize.

His debates text, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, was published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster. Using various documents, including unpublished results from original vote ledgers, Guelzo describes Lincoln, Douglas, and a cast of other characters in the most important senatorial contest to date. He provides a detailed account of each debate scene and the grassroots political maneuvering, as well as deeper issues, including the candidates' starkly different views of democracy.

ALO: Your book is the first narrative history of the debates. How does it differ from its predecessors?

Allen Guelzo: The emphasis is on the narrative. There have been a handful of books on the Lincoln-Douglas debates but they usually focused on the political theory of the debates, rather than the debates and the campaigns as historical events. A very good example of that is Harry Jaffa's book, Crisis of the House Divided. It's a book of genius but is almost entirely focused on extracting aspects of political theory from the debates. It does not really present a point-to-point account of how the debates were created and how they unfolded and what the results were.

David Zarefsky's wonderful book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates is an analysis of the rhetoric employed by Lincoln and Douglas. Again, it doesn't try to offer the point-to-point debate so much as it tries to isolate those elements of the rhetorical style and the rhetorical techniques used by Lincoln and Douglas to make their points during the debates.

When the debates have been treated as historical events, it's usually been within biographies of Lincoln, as in Albert Beveridge's Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858, which contains the best narrative of the debates; or, within a larger, synthetic work of history about the 1850s and the coming of the Civil War, such as David Potter's The Impending Crisis, or the series of volumes Allan Nevins wrote on the Ordeal of the Union.

There's really only been one major narrative history of the debates, a book by Saul Sigelschiffer, a New York education professor, published in the 1970s by a vanity press. There is a much shorter history of the debates by Richard Heckman, published in the 1960s, but it is a very brief overview.

ALO: Give us a glimpse of the "historical surprises" in your research.

Allen Guelzo: There are a number of them. The most important surprise has to do with the voting patterns for Lincoln and Douglas. Bear in mind that this was not a direct election; U.S. senators were not directly elected by the people until 1912.

The original text of the Constitution mandated that members of the House of Representatives should be directly elected by the people, but members of the Senate were to be selected by the state legislatures. This reflected the view of the framers: that the House of Representatives was where the people of the United States were represented as a whole. The Senate was where the states and the sovereignty of the states was represented in Congress. So until 1912 it was the state legislatures which did the electing of senators.

Now in the case of Lincoln and Douglas, this means they are campaigning all through 1858 for votes that will not be cast for them. No one in 1858 actually cast a vote for either Abraham Lincoln or Stephen Douglas. What people were doing was casting a vote for state legislators (the state house or senate), with the understanding that when the new legislature met in January 1859, these people would then vote for either Lincoln or Douglas.

Nevertheless, you can should be able to look at how people voted indirectly for the state legislators and form some ideas of how they thought they were voting for Lincoln and Douglas, and that's where the surprise comes in. Virtually every account of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, when it finally explains how Lincoln loses and Douglas wins, cites as its version of the popular vote count the votes cast for the two state offices that were up for election, state treasurer and state superintendent of public instruction, because those are direct elections in 1858. Those elections are easy to take as a yardstick for how people voted for the state legislature (and for Lincoln and Douglas) because these two races are what the political almanacs report. So the reasoning runs that if someone votes for a Republican candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, then it's likely they also would cast a vote for Abraham Lincoln if they could have voted for him directly.

When you look at those two direct elections in Greeley's Tribune Almanac or the American Almanac, you discover that Republican candidates for State Treasurer and for State Superintendent of Public Instruction garnered about 125,000 votes, and that Democratic candidates for those two offices won about 121,000. If we assume that the votes cast for these two offices correlate pretty directly with the votes they cast for state legislators, then we can say that Republican state legislators -- and therefore, Lincoln -- eked out a small majority. But isn't that a surprise because isn't Lincoln supposed to have really shellacked Douglas in the debates? Does this mean the debates were for nothing? Is Lincoln's performance in the debates an illusion?

Well, the problem with that is the assumption that you can take the vote counts for those direct state offices and translate them into what would have been votes for Lincoln and Douglas, and they don't translate at all. If you go back to the original vote ledgers in the Illinois Secretary of State's office, you find that the votes cast for members of the state legislature amount to a great deal more than if you take those two figures together.

Actually, there were 330,000 votes cast in the state legislative elections, and the reason is that Illinois state legislative districts frequently elected multiple representatives from each district, so within a certain district you would actually have two or more elections going on with separate sets of votes being cast. When you look at that total, not only is it entirely different from what the almanacs and histories report, but the way the voting took place, Lincoln candidates for the legislature came off with about 54 percent of the vote. Douglas candidates came off with only about 45 percent.

But Lincoln loses, doesn't he? This is because the Illinois apportionment scheme heavily favored districts in the south of the state which were solidly Democratic and shortchanged districts from the north, which were heavily Republican. With the apportionment that much out of kilter, Douglas is handily reelected to the Senate and Lincoln loses. But if it had been a direct election, it might have been a very, very different story. If you just look at the number of ballots cast for Democrat or Republican legislators, Lincoln's victory on those terms would have been quite substantial. So that's a major surprise right there.

ALO: Has this ever been recorded before?

Allen Guelzo: No. It's simply been too easy to go to the standard reference works, especially to the political almanacs of the 1850s and just use the numbers that are there. The assumption is that we can't capture the numbers from the individual districts because you've got to look them up in places like the state voting ledgers, and that is itself something of a voyage of discovery.

When I originally posed the question, "How did people vote out of the districts?" it took two or three days in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, going through stacks, looking through books, before we finally isolated the vote ledgers, which are in the Secretary of State's office. So one very desolate and lonely Saturday morning I went to that office and spent a good deal of time scrolling through microfilm, recording the vote numbers on a spreadsheet. It was a really whopper to see those results come out at the end, very different from anything that could have been expected.

In the past it was too easy to go to the almanacs. So, one generation of historians authoritatively cites those numbers, and a second generation sees no reason why they should reinvent the wheel, and they perpetuate the cycle.

Representatives Hall
Site of "House Divided" Speech
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ALO: When the 1858 campaign began, Lincoln made a famous speech called the "House Divided," which some believed was a mistake. What do you think?

Allen Guelzo: Lincoln was bitterly criticized, not only by Douglas but by members of his own party, for delivering a speech that was widely read as inflammatory. This speech was given in June of 1858 at the Republican state convention, a month before Douglas was able to return from the meetings of the Senate in Washington.

It's important to read the opening of the House Divided Speech to understand what Lincoln thought he was saying, because he begins by talking about the Kansas-Nebraska Act and says that Douglas has promised that popular sovereignty and the Kansas-Nebraska Act he authored, are going to solve the slavery controversy.

A paraphrase of his remarks might be, "Well, we're now four and a half years on and not only is the controversy not solved; it's actually been made worse. Why is that? It's because we haven't been looking the issue directly in the eye. We have been trying to limp along, like a house divided. We have been trying to avert our eyes from the need to confront this issue, an issue which means we're either going to become all one thing or all the other. We obviously can't go forward in this divided fashion. So as a nation we're going to have to make up our mind about what we want to be."

That's what Lincoln thought he was saying, but what people heard was the language of House Divided. It conjures up a number of Biblical images of strife and conflict, war, fighting, and collapse. That was what sounded inflammatory. Lincoln was actually puzzled by the way people responded to it.

But the fact is that over and over and over again, you read accounts of people complaining about the speech, that it was too inflammatory. I think Lincoln made a rhetorical misjudgment in the sense that although he was accurately describing the situation, the language he was using just set alarm bells off in the minds of those listening to it.

ALO: Of course, Douglas just kept throwing it back at him.

Allen Guelzo: Douglas never missed an opportunity to profess shock and dismay over the House Divided, from the very first speech he gave at the beginning of the campaign on July 9 in Chicago, all the way to the end.

ALO: The House Divided speech preceded the seven formal debates, but weren't there many other speeches that year?

Allen Guelzo: The debates grab our attention because they were face-to-face moments. In fact, Lincoln and Douglas were on the campaign trail almost without intermission from mid-July until the very eve of the election, the second of November. In the course of things they not only have the seven debates but they deliver upwards of 50 to 60 stump speeches in a variety of venues all around Illinois -- mostly in the middle of the state, because the swing votes are going to be in the old Whig party districts and counties of the mid-state and Illinois River towns. It's what I call the "Whig Belt." That's what held the balance and both Lincoln and Douglas knew it so they devoted most of their attention that way.

Actually, the campaign began, and went on for approximately two-and-a-half weeks without any whisper about debates. It's not until July 25 that the challenge to a debate is issued, which suggests this is an afterthought. In fact, it's not even Lincoln's afterthought. Lincoln believed the most efficient and productive strategy was in following Douglas around Illinois and giving a speech after Douglas was done.

The Illinois State Central Committee, however, looked at this and saw not a penny-pinching way to fly on Douglas's coattails, but what looked like a feeble, cheap imitation of Douglas's campaign strategy. The solution to this was suggested by Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune, by Joseph Medill and Charles Ray of the Chicago Tribune, and ultimately by the Republican Central Committee, which calls Lincoln to Chicago and tells him, "We think it would be a good idea to issue a challenge for one or more debates." So the debates were not originally Lincoln's plan.

The idea of one-on-one debating is really more of a surprise on Douglas's part. Douglas, while he knew Lincoln and had a fairly accurate perception of Lincoln's powers as a speaker and a debater, nevertheless must have assumed that, because he was the great Stephen A. Douglas, it should not take long for him to put Lincoln away. All it would take would be two or three of these debates and he would have Lincoln on the mat.

The first great surprise in the debates is that by the time we get to the fourth one, that hasn't happened. Lincoln instead is going like the Energizer Bunny. If anything, he picks up momentum after Charleston, goes to Galesburg, Quincy, and to Alton, and in those last three debates he clearly has the upper hand on Douglas.

This is really an upset, not just in terms of those voting statistics, but even in terms of perception. What would you have expected if the most famous American politician in the 1850s had been challenged by a man understood to have only a regional reputation, who was the perennial loser, the "nice guy" who always finishes last, who was always nominated by his party when they know can't win the election but have to nominate somebody -- what would you have expected to be the result of debates between candidates like these? I think the big surprise is not so much that Lincoln beats Douglas as that Douglas can't find a way to beat Lincoln.

ALO: He paints himself into a corner, so to speak.

Allen Guelzo: Yes, and very much to his surprise. He must have asked at some point late in the debates, "Why did I do this? What was I thinking? "

ALO: How does your description of Douglas as a "gambler" relate to this?

Allen Guelzo: Stephen A. Douglas is a man of appearances. He's a man who appears to be aggressive, powerful, masculine; when in fact he's a man of sickly health who suffers from a variety of illnesses, and who does not have very much in the way of physical stamina. He's also a man who wants to appear as the heir of the mantle of Andrew Jackson: wise, sage, statesmanlike, thinking of the future of the country. And yet at every point the man is careless, offhand, impulsive. He's a gambler.

Now, curiously, he doesn't actually gamble with cards or horses, but he does almost everything else that's close to it: real estate speculation, big changes, big parties. He loved the thrill of the gamble, the thrill of the risk, as if it almost balanced out his physical infirmities and limitations. I don't want to sound excessively psychological about a man I've not actually met, of course, but you do get this sense with Douglas: here was a guy who did like living out on the edge.

Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen A. Douglas
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ALO: Some writers have described Douglas as Lincoln's perpetual antagonist, pushing Lincoln toward greatness, even in the debates. Is there anything to this?

Allen Guelzo: I think there's an element of truth in that because what you see in Lincoln in the first three debates -- in Ottawa, in Freeport, in Jonesboro -- is a candidate who's trying to run his role in the debates along the same lines as Douglas. He's trying to make the same kinds of arguments. He's trying to play the safe way, and to use the same rhetorical strategies. He's holding his own but not doing anything spectacular.

In Charleston and Galesburg, you begin to hear the door open onto something else and it is in those final three debates that Lincoln begins to seize the high ground about the morality of slavery. The "real issue" (in Lincoln's phrase) is not the Constitutional technicality about who has the authority or doesn't have the authority to legalize slavery in the territories. Instead, it's whether slavery itself is right in the first place and whether we as a nation should even be talking about legalizing slavery.

When Lincoln moves onto that ground, it allows him to develop his most potent argument. Up till that point, the other kinds of more settled, lower-level cautious arguments simply aren't gaining much yardage against Douglas. He's not losing ground, but he's not gaining what needs to be gained.

In the opening debates he's playing it very cautiously, very carefully, which is very typical of Lincoln. But caution and carefulness were not getting him points; in fact, as early as Freeport the Central Committee was pressuring him to get more aggressive and go on the attack and that forces him to do it and it's well that it does.

ALO: Is there anything in Douglas's upbringing to predict a future which might lack a moral core?

Allen Guelzo: Actually, both men have similarities in their childhoods. Both lose a parent at an early age; Lincoln loses his mother, Douglas loses his father. For both of them, the loss of parents, the loss of continuity in the family -- in Lincoln's case, this includes the death of his grandfather -- have serious economic consequences for them. For Lincoln, the death of Abraham the elder throws all the property in the hands of the older brother, Mordecai, and Thomas Lincoln really has to start from scratch. He can't build on what his father was in the process of achieving in Kentucky.

Similarly, for Douglas's family, they were really on the way up and his father was probably the most successful and prominent of the Douglas generations in America. So when his father dies very suddenly, that's a catastrophe. Both Lincoln and Douglas find themselves behind an economic eight-ball. Then they both strike out on their own: Douglas from Vermont, all the way to Illinois; Lincoln arrives in Illinois via Indiana. So there are some superficial similarities in terms of family background. But they translate into something entirely different.

On the whole, however, I think how they express themselves by 1858 is less a matter of family background than political ideology. What political culture do Lincoln and Douglas buy into? If you take them at the beginning of their political careers before they made commitments or choices, that's where the similarities grab you, but it's the choice of political worlds they inhabit that makes all the difference.

Douglas identifies with Andrew Jackson, becomes a Jacksonian Democrat, and is a Democrat of Democrats. When you buy into a political party, you're not just buying a party and a mechanism to get elected. You're also buying into an entire culture. The culture of the Jacksonian Democracy deplored the injection of moral questions because that wasn't what American politics was about.

American politics steered away from entanglements of church and state (that's the inheritance of Jefferson), and away from injecting what were understood to be questions of personal conviction onto the public square, which simply was not to be done. What governed the political square was the political process -- the political rules, the Constitution. Moral commitments and moral convictions were all good but they were considered your private affair.

Lincoln buys into the Whig party. His hero is Henry Clay, and the Whigs have a much more complicated relationship with questions of public morality. The Whig party is the place where questions of morality are permitted remarkably freely and where religious voices are in fact welcomed to provide opinions, stability, and cultural content.

ALO: What about the implications of Douglas marrying into a slaveholding family and receiving income from their slave-run plantation?

Allen Guelzo: Douglas actually was very candid about it. His father-in-law (from his first marriage) bequeathed the family's slaves to Douglas's two sons, with Douglas acting as trustee until they came of age. But whatever he could have gained in terms of political capital from saying, "I'm simply doing this because of this trust for my children," he excuses away by the reality that he takes a very direct hand in the management of the plantations and the slaves.

He certainly does not have much hesitation in taking money from them. I think this also explains why Douglas was so reluctant to have the issue about those slaves brought out into the open, because he could not, with an entirely consistent and clear conscience, say, "This is simply a fluke of the inheritance laws." He knew sooner or later people were going to find out there was a revenue stream for him.

ALO: When did this come to light?

Allen Guelzo: The person who "blows the whistle" most aggressively on this in 1858 is John Slidell, a Louisianan and a slaveholder. Slidell is a Buchanan lieutenant, and President James Buchanan sends him as his personal representative to work with the Buchananites in Illinois and spread around the news, or "dirt," on Douglas. The irony is you have a Southern slaveholder who's going around Illinois telling people "Stephen A. Douglas is a slaveholder."

ALO: Does it seems strange that Douglas says he doesn't care if slavery is "voted up or down" if he's profiting from it?

Allen Guelzo: I think in the long run he really meant what he said about not caring whether or not slavery was voted up or down. He could compartmentalize the slaves in his father-in-law's trust because, after all, it was a trust agreement, so he could give himself permission to assume this was something entirely different.

His objection to the Lecompton Constitution has nothing to do with slavery. He took as his ground of objection to Lecompton the fact that the election and the convention which stood behind it were rigged at Buchanan's behest. Therefore they do not represent genuine popular sovereignty. It's a very contrived argument but he has to find some ground on which to stand, and that becomes the ground. Ironically, it makes him a hero to the antislavery people, not because he had convictions about slavery but simply because he was opposing Lecompton. Anti-slavery people concluded, a little too hastily, that "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." He actually believed that convictions about right or wrong concerning slavery should not enter into public discussion or public policy, because they were, at least potentially, too divisive and too liable to be pushed to irreconcilable extremes. So, for Douglas, if Kansas, by a legitimate process, wanted to legalize slavery, it was fine with him.

ALO: Could you explain more about "process" and "principle?"

Allen Guelzo: For Douglas, democracy is principally a matter of the process of people openly determining by majority rule, what they want. If you put it in a phrase, for Douglas it would be simply vox populi -- the voice of the people rules. In fact, when he is notified of his official reelection to the Senate in January 1859, the message he telegraphs back is "Let the voice of the people rule."

That's the guiding star for Douglas politically. If the people want to vote themselves something that is wrong, well, that's the price you pay for democracy. So democracy for him is about process. Democracy is an end in itself and if you have observed all the rules and counted all the noses and everything is done above board, that's what democracy is.

Lincoln represents an entirely different point of view. For Lincoln, democracy is a means, a means of realizing the truths of natural law that are hardwired in human nature -- the ones Jefferson articulated -- the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those are things which are inalienable, not negotiable. That's what makes you a human being. The purpose of democracy is to create a system which gives natural rights the most natural flow.

Democracy is opposed to aristocracy. Does aristocracy promote the right to liberty or the pursuit of happiness? No, not nearly as well as democracy does. So the glory of democracy is the way it functions as a means to the higher goal of natural law. But it is a means, and there are certain elements of what are natural right and natural law which cannot be put to a vote.

There are certain principles which exist above the process. The purpose of the process is to realize the principles. It would almost be like saying, "Why do you own an automobile?" So you can turn the engine on and sit in it? Do you say this automobile runs great? Okay, what next? Are you going to go somewhere in it? Stephen A. Douglas, if he was an automobile mechanic, would say, "We'll just let it go where it wants to go."

Lincoln would say, "No, that automobile is a means to get me to another place. It's a means to get me to Illinois. It has some other purpose it serves beyond just being in operation." That represents a Continental Divide -- not just between Lincoln and Douglas. It also represents a fundamental divide in American political theory and it's one we have lived with for a long time in our history. That's one reason the Lincoln-Douglas debates have fascinated people.

However much the debates appear to be full of parry and thrust, bite and bite back, there is this real, basic, fundamental disagreement about what a democracy is supposed to be. For Douglas it really is, "I don't care." For Lincoln, the real issue is argued at the last debate, when he says, "That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong -- throughout the world ... It is the same spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle." That separates the two men pretty decisively.

ALO: That's classic Lincoln, getting to the "nub" of an issue.

Allen Guelzo: He wants to ask this question: "What is the problem in the slavery controversy?" For Douglas, the problem is that there is controversy. For Lincoln, the problem with the slavery controversy is slavery. Lincoln's warning, from the House Divided speech all the way to the end of the campaign is, unless you come up fully and frankly to this question, "Is slavery right or wrong?" the controversy is never going to go away. No matter how many bandaids you put on it, no matter how much popular sovereignty you apply, we have to make up our minds, is slavery right or wrong? Everything else will flow from that position. Trying to deal with the controversy will get you nowhere. It will just produce another Kansas Territory bloodbath. If, however, we focus upon the real issue, whether this is right or wrong, we'll take care of the controversy along with it, but we have to make up our minds, one way or the other. The country can't be a house divided.

ALO: Douglas supported Lincoln's Union-saving efforts before his death in June 1861. If he lived longer, would that have changed?

Allen Guelzo: Suppose Douglas had lived past 1861. He would have had the expectation of running for president in 1864 and all of his energies would be bent in that direction. And on the path toward that election, I suspect he would have offered himself as the "honest broker" between North and South, not as a resolute ally of Lincoln. After all, what had achieved success and prominence for Douglas was his participation in the Compromise of 1850. That teaches Douglas a lesson. If you want to be famous and loved in American politics, be, like Clay, a Great Compromiser. So everything in Douglas's temperament would have been skewed toward saying, "All right, let's see if we can work out a compromise."

Even in Douglas's last statements in the Senate a month before he dies he's already beginning to indicate points on which there's liable to be opposition to the Lincoln administration. If he lived I think he would have become the core of Democratic opposition very early. Whether it would have been the same kind of peace-at-any-price Democratic opposition that's offered by people like Clement Vallandigham or Horatio Seymour is another question, but what is certain is when Douglas dies it takes the Democratic party almost a year to catch its wind, find a new set of leaders in Congress, and when it does find them they are Vallandigham, S.S. Cox, and other Peace Democrats. Would Douglas have been more of a War Democrat? Quite possibly. But I still think it would have been in opposition to Lincoln. Douglas would always be thinking of a re-match.

Other Lincoln Books by Allen Guelzo

  • Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009.
  • Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.
  • Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

    Selected Debates Titles by Other Authors

  • Davis, Rodney O. and Wilson, Douglas L., editors. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
  • Holzer, Harold, editor. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text. Harpercollins, 1993.
  • Jaffa, Harry V. Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Zarefsky, David. Lincoln, Douglas, and Slavery: In the Crucible of Public Debate. University of Chicago Press, 1993.

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