By Erin Carlson Mast
Yesterday, Senator Clinton challenged Senator Obama to a “Lincoln-Douglas style debate,” where the candidates ask each other questions rather than having a moderator pose questions to each candidate. Although the Lincoln-Douglas debates were reprinted during the presidential campaign of 1860, the debates originally took place in 1858 during Illinois race for the United States Senate. At that time, Lincoln was a relative newcomer, Douglas had more experience, and it was Douglas who ultimately won the seat in the Senate.
The debates were, however, the collective event that launched Lincoln onto the national stage. The question of extending slavery into territories was a key issue in the senate race, with Lincoln on the side of non-extension and Douglas essentially arguing for people in the territories to be allowed to vote and make the decision themselves. The content of the debates can be offensive to the 21st century reader, but it is important to remember the context of the debates–a heated race for the Illinois senate seat in a time when slavery was legally practiced in much of the country–and the crowd in front of the debaters. And while the transcripts of the debates were published and disseminated after the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the audience was more regional.
It will be interesting to see if the Clinton-Obama debates in the style of Lincoln and Douglas occur and which key issues will emerge dominant if the two ask their own questions of one another, and how they address both concerns of the local audience, but the national and international audience members that tune in.
Transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 are available through the National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/archive/liho/debates.htm or through Google Books, which offers a digitized version of the debates and supplementary materials including press commentary, published in 1860 by Lincoln’s supporters.