The Lincoln-Douglas-Gingrich Debates

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

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.



  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)


Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *