The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 are among the most celebrated examples of political discourse in American history. Yet they had their low moments. At the Charleston debate in mid-September, Abraham Lincoln said: “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Students in History 288 need to explain that statement in its context. Was Lincoln merely responding to vicious race-baiting from Stephen Douglas and the Illinois Democrats? Was he expressing a sincerely held set of his own color prejudices? If Lincoln believed what he said about equality, then how could he sound so adamant in asserting that blacks deserved all the rights of the Declaration of Independence? These are challenging questions that require sophisticated analysis of the political culture of the late 1850s and the peculiar political style of Abraham Lincoln. James McPherson provides an able narrative guide in the second half of chapter 6 from Battle Cry of Freedom but students should also consult the Lincoln-Douglas Debates Digital Classroom from the House Divided Project. See especially the clickable word cloud of the debates. Also, please examine the selected documents from the 1858 campaign, covering not only the seven debates but also the general strategy at stake in the partisan battle. Perhaps the most revealing of these documents, at least as far as Lincoln was concerned, might be the so-called “bare suggestion” letter of October 20, 1858. How would you describe Lincoln as a politician as he approached his fiftieth birthday in the campaign of his life? It might also be interesting to consider the modern-day argument over whether or not contemporary candidates should engage in Lincoln-Douglas-style debates. See a recent op-ed by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer on why he believes that the debates offer a poor model for 2012 candidates.
Office: Denny 218
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- Lindsey Blais on Reconstruction Era Conflicts