It happened today - August 21, 2015

If you find our party leaders’ debates hard to sit through, you might not have relished the prospect on August 21, 1858 of hearing two candidates for an Illinois senate seat begin a 21-hour argument about Lecompton men and other such trivia. But if so you’d have missed a treat, and a landmark, because the two men were a rising Whig turned republican star named Abraham Lincoln and the Democratic “Little Giant” Stephen A. Douglas and their encounter would not only shape America’s destiny, it would show how political debate should be done.

Well, arguably not the bit with no microphones and a long bumpy ride along a dirt road in a mule cart. But it shows how determined people were to hear what the two had to say that tens of thousands of people turned out for the debates, often traveling long distances to backwater towns whose total population was only a few thousand inhabitants (it’s good that modern debates are on TV; who today would walk eight feet to hear our leaders' drivel?), and they were not disappointed.

The debates themselves are unfamiliar to modern ears for all sorts of reasons from Lincoln’s eccentric habit of gradually bending his knees while making an argument then suddenly shooting up to his full scarecrow height at the key moment to the audience habit of shouting things like “That’s the doctrine” when they agreed with a point. I’m sometimes tempted to attend a political event just to shout it and see the weird looks I get. Of course I don’t hear much at modern political events that strikes me as sound doctrine or, indeed, as doctrine in any recognizable sense. Just talking points and cant.

One reason Lincoln and Douglas couldn’t dish out such offensive paste was the format, seven debates lasting three hours each. You actually had to say something. And as the debates were held over almost two months, there was time for participants and audiences (including those who followed them via lengthy newspaper accounts) to ponder the arguments, probe for weak points, revisit issues and actually think things through.

Indeed as the debates go on you can feel Lincoln in particular doing so, recovering from fairly weak initial performances as he zeroed in on the contradiction of Douglas claiming he did not care whether slavery were voted in or not while arguing that it was in some vague way wrong. Lincoln actually lost the Senate election, still in those days in the hands of the Illinois legislature not directly of voters. But he clearly won the argument, changing his own mind to some extent and it seems Douglas’s as well.

His performance was critical in securing him the 1860 Republican nomination. But after he won the election, and the South began to secede, Douglas rallied to his former rival and the Union, speaking strongly against secession in the crucial Border States before dying fairly young of typhoid fever in June 1861.

Of course we don’t actually know what they said; for some reason nobody has put the video on YouTube. But in teaching a seminar on American slavery at the University of Ottawa I had my students read Harold Holzer’s painstaking reconstruction of the debates from newspaper accounts, based on the intriguing and to me persuasive belief that Republican newspapers generally tried to polish up Lincoln’s presentations and Democratic ones did the same for Douglas, while each more or less recorded the other guy’s stuff verbatim, so the best source for each was the accounts of unfriendly journalists.

I don’t know what the students made of it; many may have found it hard slogging. But I was amazed at the vitality, dynamism and genuine movement in the debates as they went along. I’d far rather sit through 21 hours of those two than 21 minutes of the current crop.