We are starting the season of televised political debates, a modern tradition that began with Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. Political debates were inspired by a contest for the US Senate in Illinois in 1858. Incumbent Sen. Stephen Douglas and his challenger, Abraham Lincoln, a former U.S. Congressman, met in seven Illinois cities, and the contest gripped the nation.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates were outdoors, face-to-face and had no moderator. Lincoln and Douglas took turns opening each contest with a one-hour speech. The other candidate had an hour and a half to rebut, and then the first one speaking had another half-hour to respond. The audience yelled comments and reaction.
Slavery and its expansion into western territories were the main topics. As Allen Guelzo states in Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, “Douglas argued that the people ought to be allowed to make up their own minds about slavery. …Lincoln argued that minds which could not see that slavery was an abomination were operating on the wrong principles.”
Lincoln said, “When he invites any people, willing to have slavery, to establish it, he is blowing out the moral lights around us. When he says he “cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up’’-that it is a sacred right of self-government-he is, in my judgment, penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people. https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/debates.htm.
Whether today’s voters would have the attention span to stand up in heat or rain and listen for three hours to two men speaking is uncertain, but even without loudspeakers, jumbotrons, bleachers or streaming video, people were riveted by the event.
The first debate had a crowd estimated at over 10,000 that expanded to 15,000 or more in the later debates. Special trains carried passengers to the events, so the host cities profited greatly from the influx. The debates were preceded by music, parades, and commerce. Using shorthand, reporters transcribed the speeches, and newspapers carried them nationwide. People especially enjoyed Lincoln’s humor.
“He has read from my speech in Springfield, in which I say that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Does the Judge say it can stand? (Laughter) I don’t know whether he does or not. The Judge does not seem to be attending to me just now, but I would like to know if it is his opinion that a house divided against itself can stand. If he does, then there is a question of veracity, not between him and me, but between the Judge and an authority of a somewhat higher character. (Laughter and applause)”
At that time Senators were appointed by the state legislature. Lincoln lost his bid to unseat Douglas but came to national prominence during the debates. Two years later, in 1860, Lincoln and Douglas ran against one another for president, and Lincoln won.