Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will debate three times in 2016, on September 26,
October 9, and and October 19. This is shaping up to be a pivotal series of encounters and yet the story of formal presidential debates is a relatively new one in American political culture. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas competed against each other for president in 1860, but they didn’t debate, at least not that year. Their famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates were part of the 1858 senatorial campaign in Illinois. In the nineteenth century, presidential candidates barely ventured out int0 the open, let alone debate each other. Douglas did travel and speak in 1860, but Lincoln stayed home in Springfield.
The first real series of presidential debates was in 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Their televised clash was so famously consequential (and so complicated by FCC rules), that presidential candidates did not debate again in the general election until 1976. They have been debating almost ever since (except in 1980), however, and that is why we know that the Clinton-Trump debates will matter. For the last forty years, these contests have been critical in shaping the decisions of swing voters.
Time magazine online has a good piece from 2015 that documents “10 Memorable Moments” from these debates, including some powerful video clips. The Committee for Presidential Debates also has a helpful reference page outlining the history of American political debates. Students in History 211 should consult these resources before watching the Clinton-Trump series. Prof. Pinsker will be live-tweeting historical context from @House_Divided with the hashtag #hist211. Feel free to join that conversation if you want.