Books discussed in this essay:
Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, by Allen C. Guelzo;
The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln's Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America, by Roy Morris, Jr.;
Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, by Harry V. Jaffa
Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, by Godfrey Rathbone Benson, Lord Charnwood
One cannot have a great debate over small matters. Great political oratory depends on an occasion, as does great statesmanship itself. Compared to orators and statesmen, other wordsmiths and artists are not as dependent on the character of the times, since they can work in genres other than the epic. Great literature can be made from very slight reeds (think of Emma Bovary and her ennui). Or, if epic is preferred, the full sweep of history is always available. Thus, a great statesman who is also a great writer can bide his time with political history when political life stagnates. Churchill began his History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1930s while those peoples were given over to diplomatic follies. As the democracies squandered their earlier victory in the Great War, they "allowed the wicked to rearm" and guaranteed their own future need of statesmanly salvation. These periods of waiting—of retirement and even exclusion from office—are typical of the highest examples of democratic statesmanship.
There are, of course, those who don't want to wait. Ambitious men who are sufficiently Machiavellian can generate their own occasions. In the greatest debate in American history, Stephen A. Douglas seems to have done just that. He miscalculated, however, working his own and nearly his nation's ruin. Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The sequence of names, contravening alphabetical order, indicates who won—ultimately, that is. Although Douglas held on to his Senate seat, his campaign diminished his prospects for the presidency. This year is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. We remember Douglas now as the foil to Lincoln, but at the time Douglas was both the preeminent man and the catalyst.
The seven debates of the Illinois senatorial campaign of 1858 were neither the beginning nor the end of the rivalry between Lincoln and Douglas. As Allen C. Guelzo notes in his new book Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, "The debates, after all, were seven moments out of campaigns that stretched over four months." In a meticulously detailed work of historical reconstruction, Guelzo resituates the debates within their political context, which is to say especially their party context. He provides the nitty-gritty ins and outs of the campaign struggle, including the skirmishes within each camp. Offering both information and analysis, he mixes the colorful and insightful along with, I'm afraid, a bit of the tedious. Fidelity to history, like marital fidelity, is a virtue, but one begins to tire of the commitment when it involves chores like introducing every local dignitary who joined the candidates on the dais.
Guelzo's attention to the party organizers and string-pullers, however, serves—and is meant to serve—as a "corrective to the prevailing skepticism about the participatory quality of nineteenth-century democracy." So too his descriptions of the ordinary folks who attended the debates, which bring to life the full-throated, rip-roaring, no-holds-barred character of partisanship. Citizens delighted in assembling, parading, discussing, heckling, even brawling, and, most revealingly, providing their own blunt encapsulations of the debates in their banners and badges—like the embroidered inscriptions worn by a group of Douglasite young ladies: "White Men or None."
As Guelzo documents, the Democrats strove relentlessly to paint Lincoln as a radical abolitionist (or as Douglas expressed it, a "lying, wooly-headed abolitionist") and to construe his opposition to the extension of slavery as an embrace of Negro equality, with the added implication that the real goal of racial equality was miscegenation. The race card was always trump—especially when women were at stake—and was played not only overtly but with a flourish. It worked particularly well in sweeping many old-line Whig districts in the crucial central belt of the state into Democratic hands. Although the race card has not disappeared from our political deck, these days it requires considerable sleight of hand to introduce it or, better yet, palm it off and accuse your opponent of introducing it.
It wasn't only demagoguery but other seamy elements of electoral politics that helped secure Douglas's victory: most especially, the Democratic-slanted apportionment of the Illinois districts and, possibly, voter fraud. Guelzo's analysis of the returns shows just how close the election was. Remember, no one cast a vote directly for either Lincoln or Douglas; under the original Constitution, U.S. senators were appointed by state legislatures. In 1858, the Republicans actually won the popular vote at all levels—not only for statewide offices like treasurer, but also in total votes cast in the state house and state senate races. But because the apportionment of representatives did not match the population distribution—over-weighting safely Democratic districts—the Democrats were able to retain control of the legislature. Moreover, in the most highly contested, formerly Whig areas of the state, the Democrats may have benefited from the temporary placement of crews of reliably Democratic (i.e., Irish) railroad workers. Douglas's relationship with the Illinois Central Railroad was "cozy" to say the least (George McClellan, soon-to-be-General McClellan, was company vice president at the time) and residency requirements for voting were rarely enforced. Indeed, from Guelzo's description, polling procedures altogether were not in accord with what we now call "best practices." As the other Douglass—Frederick Douglass—humorously put it, while making the case for black suffrage:
a day's experience at the polls convinced me that the "body politic" is not more immaculate than many other bodies. That in fact it is a very mixed affair. I saw ignorance enter, unable to read the vote it cast…. I saw Pat, fresh from the Emerald Isle, requiring two sober men to keep him on his legs, enter and deposit his vote for the Democratic candidate amid the loud hurrahs of his fellow-citizens.
"Best practices" may be both efficient and equitable, but they usually aren't vibrant in the way that 19th-century frontier politics was. Although the Lincoln-Douglas contest was an indirect election (supposedly a more aristocratic mechanism), I think one could argue that the effect on state politics was to increase and energize citizen involvement, by the rowdy and respectable alike. Half a century later, the 17th Amendment was presented as a democratizing reform. But breaking the salutary link between the outcomes at the state and federal levels, as the 17th Amendment did, may have had the unintended effect of rendering state politics less compelling and federal politics more distant—not a recipe for democratic participation.
The Central Issue
While Guelzo places the great debate amidst the inter- and intra-party rivalries of 1858, Roy Morris, Jr., in his new book,The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln's Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America, expands the frame and follows their "race of ambition" from the time the two striving young men entered public life in the 1830s until Douglas's early death in the first year of the Civil War. Morris is a fine storyteller, assisted greatly by his skill in using piquant quotations and revealing vignettes. One of my favorite occurs in the account of Lincoln's speaking tour in the East (which kicked off with the famous Cooper Union address), when Morris mentions this illuminating detail: in the summer of 1860, Lincoln's son Robert was admitted to Harvard, "helped immeasurably by a letter of recommendation that Lincoln personally requested from Stephen Douglas to Harvard president James Walker." Morris doesn't editorialize, but to me this incident is a testament to civility—an example of how intense partisanship is compatible with collegiality. Lincoln and Douglas were lifelong rivals far apart on any spectrum, whether physical, characterological, or ideological. But they were not enemies. At Cooper Union, Lincoln could deliver the speech (directed straight at Douglas) that established him as a presidential contender, and then, with perfect good conscience, ask Douglas to help his son acquire the sort of education and social entrée that neither of these self-made men had ever enjoyed. Douglas generously complied.
Historians always seek new perspectives from which to view the past, and it is certainly the case that both Guelzo and Morris have found vantage points that inform and delight. However, there remains something partial, or even artificial, about their chosen timeframes as a window upon the central issue—even though the subtitles of both books refer to that issue (Guelzo's The Debates that Defined America, Morris's Struggle…for the Heart and Soul of America). To my mind, there is another timeline that is more complete because it forthrightly tracks the issue—and the parties and persons only to the extent that they formulate and engage the issue.
Not only were the debates seven moments within the political campaign of 1858, but that campaign itself was a moment in the prolonged agony of the 1850s that began in 1854 with Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska act and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. It was Douglas who triggered the avalanche that reshaped the political landscape: "Bleeding Kansas," the collapse of the Whigs, the fracturing of the Democrats, the emergence of the Republican Party out of the wreckage, the reentry of Lincoln on the political scene (after a dispiritingly long hiatus), the travesty of justice in Dred Scott v. Sanford(1857), the election of Lincoln followed immediately by Southern secession and, finally, war. Thus, the debates proper were the midpoint, and in some sense the turning point, of a struggle that stretched from 1854 to 1861. That struggle, in turn, was lodged within the original struggle at the founding over the constitutional status of slavery. It's like a collection of nested boxes with the Lincoln-Douglas debates innermost.
What was at stake? What brought Lincoln out of his comfortable retirement? Slavery, more particularly the question of federal authority over slavery in the territories, was the proximate cause, but the roots of that constitutional question reached deeply into the foundations of American self-government.
Slaveocrats and Abolitionists
There raged, of course, a more radically polarized debate over slavery even than that between the two sons of the West. We might personify it as the Douglass-Calhoun debate between the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the great defender of slavery John C. Calhoun (or, as the two-s Douglass called him, "that great man of perverted faculties"). Calhoun pioneered the argument for slavery as a "positive good," departing from the founding era's view of slavery as at best a necessary evil. Southern intransigence provoked, and was in turn provoked by, abolitionism. Both slaveocrats and abolitionists made plain their scorn for one or the other of the nation's founding charters. "Mr. Calhoun and his ‘forty thieves'" (Douglass's epithet) denied the Declaration's axiom of human equality. Their repudiation of first principles led to an assault on constitutional rights, too, as they sought to strengthen the outworks of slavery by undermining the rights of speech, press, assembly, and petition exercised by slavery's opponents. Douglass offered a graphic image of the policy:
I understand the first purpose of the slave power to be the suppression of all anti-slavery discussion…. One end of the slave's chain must be fastened to a padlock in the lips of Northern freemen, else the slave will himself become free.
Lincoln echoed Douglass when, at the close of the Cooper Union address, he asked what precisely would "satisfy" the Southern people. His conclusion: "This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right…. They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying." The real demand of the South was to silence the moral voice of the nation.
Meanwhile, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), the main abolitionist organization, denounced the Constitution as "a most cunningly-devised and wicked compact" and demanded its immediate annulment. Not only did the disciples of William Lloyd Garrison regard the 1787 Constitution as "radically and essentially slaveholding," but many were committed antinomians and "no-government" men—slavery being a paradigmatic instance of the violence inherent in all rule. Abolitionists were rightly so called, for there was much they wanted to abolish besides chattel slavery. There were other stripes of abolition (such as the Liberty Party) which were not unremittingly hostile to the Constitution—indeed Douglass himself prominently left the AASS for the Liberty Party, announcing his belief that the Constitution was "a glorious liberty document" that might "be wielded in behalf of emancipation." Nevertheless, it is at least debatable whether the radical natural-law jurisprudence associated with Lysander Spooner and the Liberty Party can be reconciled with any properly articulated constitutionalism. Certainly Lincoln did not think so, since he held himself obliged to abide by the constitutional bargain respecting slavery, including the return of fugitive slaves—an obligation that Spooner creatively interpreted away.
Care and Don't Care
In other words, neither Lincoln nor Douglas was an ultra. Lincoln was not an abolitionist and Douglas not an advocate of slavery. Instead, they represented the division within the main body of Northern public opinion. Despite this apparent moderation, the debate between them was the fundamental one, for it was explicitly about the meaning and limits of constitutional self-government. Douglas began it by proposing that the legality of slavery throughout the territories (and the new states formed therefrom) be left up to the local residents to decide. This was his "Grrrr-reat prrrr-rinciple" of popular sovereignty—a.k.a., "pop sov" or "squatter sovereignty."
For more than a quarter-century, the prevailing rule for the formation of territories and admission of new states had been the Missouri Compromise, prohibiting slavery north of 36°30'—and, by implication, allowing it south. Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska bill repealed the Missouri Compromise, removing the geographic prohibition on the spread of slavery. In erasing the line dividing free lands from slave, the Kansas-Nebraska bill erased as well the moral blame attaching to slavery. Douglas ostentatiously professed not to care which spread faster and farther: slavery or freedom. His stated policy was utter moral indifference. All that mattered was respect for the will of the majority on the spot.
In the ensuing uproar, Lincoln stepped forth to challenge Douglas's understanding of democracy. Agreeing that the right of self-government was indeed "sacred" and the "only rightful basis of any government," Lincoln nonetheless insisted that Douglas was utterly mistaken in his construal of it. The "‘sacred right of self government'…was so perverted in this attempted use of it as to amount to just this: That if any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object." Douglas's "don't care" policy was an essential step toward joining the South in calling slavery right. Moral neutrality was foundational quicksand, weakening the ground for legal prohibition and preparing the ground for moral acceptance. Lincoln insisted instead on rock-solid moral disapproval of slavery, on which could be built a complex legal structure, tolerating slavery in the existing slave states while prohibiting it in the territories under federal control. Lincoln insisted that the American people both should care and did care.
Lincoln's politics of care differs from the contemporary, debased, "I-feel-your-pain" politics of compassion. Not that Lincoln lacked compassion for his fellow man. In a famous letter to his slaveholding friend Joshua Speed, he speaks powerfully of the pain caused by the constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves:
I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union.
Yet Lincoln's politics of caring is not primarily emotional or altruistic. In his public addresses, Lincoln offers not heart-rending testimonials but reasons why he cares and explanations of what needs to be cared for. Whereas the abolitionists focused on who required care (the slave), Lincoln focused on what required care (the foundation of the right of self-government). That foundation is the mutuality of individual rights: the right of self-government must not be mistaken for a right to unlimited self-aggrandizement. As he says:
When the white man governs himself…and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that "all men are created equal;" and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another.
Lincoln showed that these acts of despotism, most especially when deceptively draped in the mantle of democracy, harmed not only slaves but also free men and, ultimately, freedom itself. Popular sovereignty was destructive of republicanism, in principle and practice. Lincoln establishes our own self-interest in respecting the inherent limits of self-government. Although inherent, those limits upon choice—occasioned by the equal and reciprocal rights of others—must be self-imposed.
Stephen A. Douglas, a man aptly described as "a steam engine in britches," was not one to accept limits of any kind. But his grand scheme to avert the slavery crisis by unlimited westward expansion (with his special interest, the railroads, in the vanguard) failed because Americans, North and South, did care. The fact of westward expansion could not supersede concern over the character of westward expansion. The free-soilers whom Douglas courted became upset at the prospect that slave labor might damage their opportunity for a fresh start in life. The Southerners whom he likewise courted became upset that popular sovereignty—in the form of "unfriendly legislation" by local majorities—might undermine their supposed right to property in slaves. Lincoln, in the course of defending republicanism and constitutionalism, skewered Douglas on the horns of this dilemma he had created for himself.
For a time, though, it did seem that Douglas's flattery of the popular will would work. Each section and party heard what it wanted. Even, at a key point, the Republicans. After Douglas opposed the Lecompton Constitution (the pro-slavery Kansas constitution that was adopted in a fraudulent election), it looked as if "popular sovereignty," with its insistence on democratic procedure, could indeed be made to serve the interests of free soil. Republicans, especially many of the Eastern leaders of the new party, were tempted to co-opt Douglas as their standard-bearer. Douglas had angered powerful forces within his own party (led by President James Buchanan) by denouncing the Lecompton fraud. An alliance with the formidable Douglas, at his most honorable, was a strategy that had its attractions. This is the very moment of the debates. In Crisis of the House Divided (1959), Harry V. Jaffa describes it as the moment of spiritual crisis: 1858 is to the Civil War as the Temptation is to the Passion.
Whereas the assault on constitutionalism was readily apparent in the pronouncements of both slaveocrats and abolitionists, it was harder to discern in Stephen Douglas, and therefore more dangerous. Even now, some commentators have trouble discerning the superior constitutionalist (or perhaps they just have a contrarian streak). Mark A. Graber, in his recent Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil, tries to make the case not only for Taney, but also for Douglas. (For a persuasive review of Graber's central errors, see Michael P. Zuckert, "Confronting Dred Scott," CRB, Winter 2007.) The Lincoln-Douglas debates differ fundamentally from the founding era debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Then compromise was often possible, and even when it wasn't, there was much to be said for the insights of both sides: today, confirmed admirers of the Federalists can credit Anti-Federalist prescience on a number of fronts, from concerns about an overreaching judiciary to fears about the loss of citizen virtue in a large, heterogeneous republic. Lincoln, by contrast, gives no quarter to the argument of Douglas. In his final speech at Alton, Lincoln offers his starkest formulation of the "real issue":
That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles-right and wrong-throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, "You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it." No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
In a delicious final twist, Lincoln shifts from Douglas as purveyor of tyranny to Douglas as purveyor of abolition and antinomian anarchy. He illustrates how Douglas's disrespect for constitutional obligations—on vivid display in his suggestion that local majorities in the territories could by "unfriendly legislation" effectually exclude slavery from a place where, according to Douglas and Dred Scott, it had a legal right to go—amounts to nullification. The heretical doctrine of nullification is susceptible of many uses; it could, for instance, justify disregard of the fugitive slave law. Lincoln's stunning last line of the debates is "Why, there is not such an Abolitionist in the nation as Douglas, after all." Lincoln was not just scoring semantic points. In abandoning republicanism and constitutionalism, Douglas did put himself in league with both absolutism (the divine right of kings) and anarchism. If every majority is an unlimited sovereign—whether that majority is national, sectional, or local, or even perhaps an individual (Henry David Thoreau's majority of one)—you have a recipe for both tyranny and anarchy.
There is no better guidebook to the debates than Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided, which has as its subtitle, An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. The University of Chicago Press is re-releasing the volume on its 50th anniversary with a new introduction by the author. Starting with Douglas and his intentions in instigating the Nebraska bill, Jaffa adopts the Miltonian procedure of giving the devil his due, and then some. Jaffa's Douglas is not a straw man. In a tour de force of hermeneutic skill, Jaffa devotes 140 pages of sustained argument to Douglas's statesmanship. He presents the case for Douglas as the heir of Madison, seeking to resolve the sectional division over slavery by the mechanisms of Federalist 10: extend the sphere and multiply the interests. The solution to faction is more faction. Two sections spell civil war; multiple sections (add the West, Northwest, and Southwest, add Cuba and Mexico, add Canada) spell peace and prosperity. One could surmise that Douglas, by resolutely downplaying the moral dimension in favor of Manifest Destiny, in effect sought a victory for freedom—a victory not in hearts and minds, but on the ground, to be achieved by changing the sectional correlation of forces. By granting Douglas all that might be said on his behalf (but which his strategy prevented him from saying himself), Jaffa renders Lincoln's demolition of Douglas even more dramatic.
What a Noble Man
The question of Douglas's motivation is one that commentators inevitably address. Godfrey Rathbone Benson, Lord Charnwood, the unmatched early 20th-century English biographer of Lincoln, delivers a summary judgment—indeed, one of the glories of Charnwood's writing is the incisive description of major figures, from Hamilton and Jefferson to the great triumvirate of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, to Lincoln's contemporaries. He pegs Douglas as a "sheer adventurer" distinguished by "his extraordinary address in pushing himself" and "trained in a school in which scruple or principle were unknown and the man who arrives is the great man." Guelzo concurs: "at bottom, Stephen A. Douglas had the temperament neither of a statesman nor of a demagogue but of a gambler." Moreover, his taste for political risk was fortified by a taste for strong liquor. In the end, Douglas's intemperance sapped his own constitution; Guelzo documents his erratic performances and increasing physical deterioration.
Morris, while he joins Charnwood, Jaffa, and Guelzo in giving the laurel to Lincoln, is not without appreciation for Douglas. Especially affecting is his account of Douglas's presidential bid in 1860. Once nominated, a presidential candidate was not expected to do unseemly things, like canvas on his own behalf. The speechifying and trolling for votes were left to prominent supporters. Irrepressible as ever, Douglas flouted convention by traversing the country (on such pretexts as visiting his mother in New England or settling his mother-in-law's estate in North Carolina), speaking in every town along a meandering route. His boundless and undisguised ambition occasioned much mockery in the partisan press.
Remarkably, Douglas's repeated tours brought him to the painful conviction that Lincoln would win the presidency and that Southern threats of disunion were no bluff. He then bravely headed South once more, where he pleaded not for votes but for patience, "insisting that Lincoln's election, in itself, would not constitute a mortal threat to southern interests, since the Democrats still controlled Congress and the Supreme Court." He urged the ballot-box, four years hence, as "a peaceful, legal and constitutional remedy for all…grievances." Upon Lincoln's arrival in Washington, with seven states already in secession, Douglas met him at the Willard Hotel, promising him "his personal support."
He was true to his word. Moments before Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, Douglas extended the small courtesy of relieving Lincoln of his top hat; he later escorted Mary Lincoln to the inaugural ball. More substantively, he praised in the Senate Lincoln's speech. Once the war began, Douglas, as the leader of the loyal opposition, again met with Lincoln, recommending that the commander-in-chief's call for 75,000 volunteers be raised to 200,000 (warning, "You do not know the dishonest purposes of those men as well as I do"). He then traveled to Illinois to rally pro-Union support, admitting his own past errors in appeasing the South.
Though of questionable character, Douglas was unquestionably a patriot. Within a couple of months, he was on his deathbed, his last words a message to his young sons: "Tell them to obey the laws and uphold the Constitution." Perhaps the best commentator on Douglas is Lincoln himself, who knew him for a quarter-century and went from saying, Douglas does not "tell as many lies as some men I have known, but I think he cares as little for the truth…as any man I ever saw," to saying, "What a noble man Douglas is." When Douglas died, Lincoln ordered federal buildings, including the White House, draped in black crepe.
The Written Word
Although it was Douglas who triggered the debates by saying things that demanded rebuttal, it was Lincoln who guaranteed their lasting fame. Near the end of his book, Guelzo notes an essential difference in the debating styles of the two men. Douglas, like nearly every politician since, had a set of talking points that he repeated ad nauseam. As Guelzo explains, "he saw the debates as rhetorical events, where all that was required for victory was a triumph in front of the voters who happened to be on hand." By contrast, Lincoln regularly introduced new arguments and interrogatories or developed new dimensions of old arguments. He could pursue this more Socratic approach because he "counted on audiences in one place having read the texts of the debates in the others." Lincoln had immediately grasped the dialectical and pedagogical possibilities of modern technology. For the first time in a political campaign, stenographers made transcriptions of the debates which were then rushed by rail to Chicago, decoded, and put into print within 48 hours. The debates were serialized by the new national wire service, the Associated Press, as well. Furthermore, despite his disappointment in the senatorial election, Lincoln soon afterward had the debates published as a book (much to Douglas's displeasure).
As Lincoln compiled his scrapbook of newspaper clippings (preliminary to finding a publisher), he also composed his "Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions," first delivered in February 1859. I suspect that Lincoln's post-debate reflections were the spur for this address, which centers on the relationship between speech, writing, and printing. Although not explicitly about the democratic statesman's role as preceptor of the people, this address reveals much about Lincoln's aims and continues his critique of Douglas as demagogue.
Speech, Lincoln decided, "valuable as it ever has been, and is, has not advanced the condition of the world much." It is writing that makes a difference:
Writing—the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye—is the great invention of the world…—great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space.
For 3,000 years, however, the art of writing was confined to the few. Printing has the potential to bring "the immancipation of thought" to all, releasing humanity from the "slavery of the mind." According to Lincoln, political equality depends on freedom of thought, for only a free mind believes itself capable of "rising to equality." Mental emancipation precedes material emancipation. Consciousness alters conditions. Just so, Lincoln conceives the publication of his thoughts on self-government as furthering the rise to equality.
As Guelzo concisely puts it: "For Douglas, the debates were principally oratory; for Lincoln, they became texts." Oddly enough, though, Guelzo laments the triumph of the textual. He chalks it up to "the accident of print" that the 1858 debates "have come completely to eclipse the campaigns." But what a happy accident! Only as text could Lincoln speak to all Americans, indeed all men, then and now. Guelzo, however, insists that "taken solely on their own, the debate texts are like Shakespeare without a stage." By recreating the historical scene in Lincoln and Douglas, Guelzo aims to restore the performative "color."
I certainly have no objection to the wonderful work of historians (among whom Guelzo ranks high) and actors, and I like the implied metaphor of historian as dramaturge. Still, there are no dramaturges without dramatists. Guelzo's deprecatory remarks about Shakespeare on-the-page are fighting words to readers of Shakespeare, in whose ranks Lincoln placed himself. Lincoln was a play-goer (unfortunately), but more fundamentally he was a play-reader. Charnwood says "he saturated his mind" with Shakespeare. (See John Channing Briggs, "Steeped in Shakespeare," in this issue.) The printed word, unaugmented by the spectacle or pageantry of performers, is the medium of truth. One of the remarkable things about Shakespeare is how little damage is done to him by even the most ridiculous stagings of his work. It is only because of the life and color already in his words (and Lincoln's) that directors and scholars even bother to construct stages and elaborate historical contexts.
As Lincoln predicted, the real-life drama has continued. Tyranny's temptation is perennial. Despite Lincoln's attempt to root democratic practice in the principle of human equality, the meaning of democracy remains contested ground. So far, the sacrifice asked of us has not equaled Lincoln's. As Charnwood said, Lincoln "did of set purpose drink and refill and drink again as full and fiery a cup of sacrifice as ever was pressed to the lips of hero or of saint." So long as we still imbibe Lincoln's words and warnings, we will be able to win the debate with today's anti-foundationalists and false foundationalists. A truly self-governing people should not expect another savior-statesman.