The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

October 5, 2012

The great debate

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— With the first of this past week’s presidential debates now relegated to history, the actual effect it has on November’s election may or may not have a bearing on who is the next U.S. chief executive.

Only during the cold light of some future historical rewind will any of us know if this debate, and the ones scheduled in the immediate future, will have any bearing upon the voting public.

Since we are in the instant gratification phase of today’s 24-hour news cycle, polling, the Internet, Twitter and Facebook, a look back into the yellowed pages of history and the year 1858 may present us with a clue.

The most historic debates in U.S. history will not be this year’s, nor the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates that turned a campaign around in 1960.

In fact, the most famous debates sprang not from a presidential race, but from a race for United States Senate — the famous debates between Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln way back when.

In 1858, this nation was on the precipice of disunion and Civil War.

Nothing, not the remembrance of our Founding Fathers, nor freedom, democracy, the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence could mend the growing tear in the fabric between North and South — between slavery and abolition.

Into this fiery, hate-filled cauldron came the figures of Douglas and Lincoln, each seeking the open Senate seat from the state of Illinois.

What was notable about the debates was the fact the entire nation, even without cameras and television and tape recording equipment, took notice.

The debate was not of policy or the economy or treaties with foreign countries. It was a debate of ideas.

Seven debates in all, spanning the width and breadth of the Prairie State, tens of thousands of spectators came by train, canal boat, by wagon and horseback to hear the two protagonists. Newspaper correspondents came from across the country.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 still held sway in 1858, as the question of slavery — free states and slave states — was the topic foremost on the mind of every American.

Either Lincoln or Douglas would open each debate with an hour address, followed by the other getting an hour and one-half to speak. Then the first speaker would get a 30 minute rebuttal.

For his part, Douglas advocated popular sovereignty, the idea that maintained it was the right of the citizens of a territory to either permit or to prohibit slavery within what eventually was to become a state within the United States.

Douglas said it was the sacred right of self-government. We hear that same argument propounded today.

Yet, Lincoln countered, the Douglas position was in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which decreed citizens of a territory yet to become a state had no such power. It also said slaves were not citizens, nor protected by the Constitution.

During the second debate, held in Freeport, Ill., Douglas said whatever the Supreme Court rules was not as important as the actions of citizens. He said, if a territory refused to have slavery, no laws or court ruling could force them to permit it.

That sentiment, while not hurting him at the time, would come back to haunt Douglas two years later when the two politicians faced one another for president in 1860, as Southerners felt his words were a betrayal.

For Douglas in the Illinois Senate race, his perceived debate victory over Lincoln, while propelling him to eventual victory over “Honest Abe” in 1858, turned out to be an albatross for “The Little Giant.”

For his part, Lincoln time and again pointed out that “a house divided could not stand.”

Douglas, in his arguments, stated the Founding Fathers “left each state perfectly free to do as it pleased on the subject.”

Lincoln felt black people were entitled to rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, which professes “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Douglas, who turned out to be on the wrong side of history and eventually an argument which was settled in the bloody and divisive American Civil War, continued to entertain the notion the Founding Fathers intended no such inclusion of slaves.

The debates became famous for setting Americans of all cuts and stripes thinking about slavery, its inherent moral questions and individual liberties versus states’ rights.

Ideas and concepts that sprang from the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates took time to change thinking across a good stretch of this land. It took a period for people to mull the greater moral question during a time of deteriorating political civility.

It’s a lesson that should not be lost on every debating candidate and political party in this, and every future presidential election — a nation divided cannot stand.

Or, as is so appropriately stated in Proverbs — “He that troubleth his own house, shall inherit the wind.”



Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking