Debates Thrust Lincoln Into Public Eye

Next week marks the 150th anniversary of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. There were seven in 1858, as the lanky Abraham Lincoln battled to unseat the stalwart incumbent Stephen Douglas. Tens of thousands turned out to see a Republican and a Democrat debate slavery.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Tonight in a California church, John McCain and Barack Obama share a stage for the first time in their presidential campaigns. It's not a debate but it does recall one of the defining moments in American history, and it's where we get tonight's parting words.

The year: 1858 - two men, two campaigns. The senator from Illinois speaks first.

J.J. SUTHERLAND: (as Stephen Douglas) I desire to know whether Mr. Lincoln today stands, as he did in 1854, in favor of the unconditional repeal of the fugitive slave law. I desire him to answer, whether he stands pledged today, as he did in 1854, against the admission of any more slave states in the Union, even if the people want them.

SEABROOK: The words of Stephen A. Douglas, then the Democratic senator from Illinois.

This coming week marks the 150th anniversary of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. There were seven of these debates in 1858, as the lanky Abraham Lincoln battled to unseat the stout incumbent, Stephen Douglas. Tens of thousands turned out to see a Republican and a Democrat debate slavery.

Stephen Douglas painted his opponent as a waffler, an abolitionist, even, as he derisively put it, a black Republican. If you desire negro citizenship, he said, vote for Mr. Lincoln.

SUTHERLAND: (as Stephen Douglas) My principles are the same everywhere. I can proclaim them alike in the north, the south, the east and the west. My principles will apply wherever the Constitution prevails and the American flag waves.

SEABROOK: These were nothing like what we call debates today. On august 21, 1858, Stephen Douglas's opening speech lasted a full hour. Then Abe Lincoln replied for an hour and a half. This is the man who would eventually sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But some of the words he spoke that night might surprise you.

TOM COLE: (as Abraham Lincoln) There is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas; he is not my equal in many respects - certainly not in color - perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal. And the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.

SEABROOK: Abraham Lincoln failed to unseat Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Senate race. But those seven debates thrust him into the national spotlight. A couple years later, the two men met again. This time in the presidential campaign, and the rest is history.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Our voice actors today - Honest Tom Cole as Lincoln and J.J. Sutherland as Douglas.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a great night.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.