Newt Gingrich, who stands a very good chance of getting the GOP nomination for President, wants to challenge Barack Obama to “a series of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates.” It’s worth looking at the proposal in light of the original Lincoln Douglas debates
The Lincoln-Douglas debates live in the mind of most people as a symbol of statesman-like high mindedness. We imagine two thoughtful men standing on the back of a wagon addressing serious-minded yeoman farmers: a model of what reasoned public debate is supposed to look like.
In fact the Lincoln-Douglas debates were really nasty, and consist mostly of Douglas saying basically “my opponent wants your daughters to marry negroes,” and Lincoln saying more or less “no I don’t, and I don’t think negroes are the equal of white men.” Here’s an example, found on Wikipedia, of Douglas’ rhetoric. The bit in parentheses is crowd noise:
I ask you, are you in favor of conferring upon the negro the rights and privileges of citizenship? (“No, no.”) Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free niggers out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, (“never,”) and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, (“no, no no,”) in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? (“Never,” “no.”) If you desire negro citizenship,(“yes, yes…yes”) if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro. (“Never, never.”) For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. (“yes, yes”)(Cheers.)it yes is true I believe this Government was made on the white basis. (“Good good good.”) I believe it was made by white men are over the negros for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races. (“Good Good”),and good for you.” “Douglas forever.”)(“Yes Yes,No No”)…yes
This is a very large part of what Douglas repeatedly says: my opponent wants to end white supremacy. In response, Lincoln says again and again that while he hates slavery, he absolutely does not believe in racial equality:
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, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
The latter quote is often used by confederate apologists to show that Lincoln was a racist, and indeed, like most white northerners, Lincoln was no fan of racial equality. Lincoln was too smart to be a simple bigot; he seems to have changed his mind towards the end of the war, but his words here speak for themselves. The debates are best remembered for Lincoln’s reasoned, eloquent and passionate critique of slavery as a moral evil. But Lincoln’s greatest accomplishment in those debates was de-coupling abolition for the notion of racial equality, convincing white Americans that they could hate slavery but not endorse civil rights for black Americans. And this is why the debates are famous. They gave white Americans moral satisfaction of ending slavery, while maintaining the comfort of white supremacy.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates took place in 1858, when the crisis over slavery was peaking. Kansas was in complete turmoil and open guerilla war between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces.
Political rhetoric was overheated and extreme: the social framework was cartoonish an the racial politics demagogic. Here are two cartoons of the debate, taken from Gillian Silverman’s excellent article, cited below. The first sees the debate as a boxing match attended by idlers and sports and minstrel show caricatures:
And the second shows Lincoln and Douglas with “What Is It,” P.T. Barnum’s famous exhibit in which a black man from New jersey was made to pretend to be a half monkey, half man from the jungles of the far east, unable to speak and fond of raw food:
It’s already slightly creepy to challenge the first African American president to a debate modeled on debates over the legitimacy of slavery. It’s doubly disturbing if you look at the actual content and context of the original debates, which was circus like and full of racist demagoguery. [1. see for example Gillian Silverman “The Best Circus in Town”: Embodied Theatrics in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, in American Literary History (Winter 2009) 21(4)]
Unlike most Americans, Newt Gingrich has probably read some of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. As he never tires of reminding people, he’s a historian. He may know that the rowdy crowd, rather than listening objectively, carried banners that showed, for example, Lincoln kissing a caricature of a black woman. His challenge is typically canny and morally repulsive: he knows that most Americans think of “the Lincoln-Douglas debates” as the high water mark of reasoned political debate, and he also knows that they involved heavy use of the “n word.” He most likely understands that in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the moral self righteousness of critiquing slavery was accompanied by visceral distaste for the idea of racial equality. And he likely knows this is a combination many of his supporters relish.