Customer Reviews: Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America (Simon & Schuster Lincoln Library)
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In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in a series of seven debates in a bitterly-fought contest for the United States Senate. The Democratic incumbent, Douglas, was the coauthor of the Compromise of 1850 and of the notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Douglas, however, had broken with the Democrats when he opposed as fraudulent the so-called Lecompton constitution under which Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a slave state.

Abraham Lincoln had served a single term in the United States Congress where he had opposed the Mexican War. He had ran for Senate in 1854 and had been narrowly defeated. His initial party affiliation was with the Whigs, but with the demise of the Whigs he joined the newly-formed Republican party.

The driving issue in the Lincoln - Douglas debates was slavery. Douglas advocated for a doctrine of popular sovereignty under which the residents of the United States' new western territories, such as Kansas, would decide for themselves whether they wished to be a slave state or a free state. Lincoln and the Republicans opposed vigorously the expansion of slavery to the territories. The debates took place against the backdrop of the Supreme Court's "Dred Scott" decision in which Chief Justice Taney had held that neither Congress nor the territorial governments had the power to exclude slavery. In the contest for the Senate, Douglas narrowly kept his seat, even though Lincoln received more of the popular vote. But the debates brought Lincoln to national prominence, and they emphasized the split that divided Douglas from the Southern Democrats following Douglas's repudiation of the Lecompton Constitution. As a result, the Democratic party was split when Douglas was nominated for the presidency in 1860. The Republicans, of course, won with their dark horse nominee, Abraham Lincoln.

In his book, "Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America" (2008), Professor Allen Guelzo explores the debates not only from the standpoint of history and politics, but, more importantly, philosophically -- from the standpoint of what they meant, and what the respective positions of Lincoln and Douglas meant, for their times and for our country's understanding of itself. It is thoughtful, difficult, and inspiring book. Guelzo is a Professor at Gettysburg College and the author of, among other books, a study of "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation" and "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President" which explores Lincoln's attitude towards religion.

Guelzo offers the reader a great deal of background and perspective on the debates. Tellingly, after Douglas had repudiated the Lecompton constitution, he became something of a hero to Eastern republicans many of whom supported him in the Senate race and saw him as a potential Republican nominee in 1860 -- all with the encouragement of Douglas. Thus Lincoln entered the contest without the backing of much of the national party. But Douglas had problems of his own as the administration of President Buchanan, furious with Douglas for his desertion over Lecompton, took away has patronage appointments in Illinois and worked against him in the campaign. With his famous question to Douglas during the second debate at Freeport, Lincoln pinned down Douglas on the doctrine of popular sovereignty, thus both confirming his alienation from Southern Democrats and also taking any hope away that Douglas could be considered a viable Republican candidate in 1860.

Guelzo offers revealing detail of the grueling nature of the campaign -- with portraits of each Illinois town in which the debate took place, its leading citizens, and the political considerations that shaped each candidate's presentation. While the candidates offered their competing visions for American, the debates were on far from a high plane, as both candidates catered to racism, innuendo and insult. Particularly in the southern sections of Illinois known as "Egypt," Lincoln made comments to his audience that many today would regard as racist. Admirers of Lincoln frequently struggle, with questionable success, to interpret or explain away these comments. Guelzo, as do many scholars, distinguishes between the "natural rights" to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, found in John Locke and in the Declaration of Independence, and "civil rights" which are more local in character and dependent upon the values of a community. Lincoln opposed slavery as the violation of natural rights but was less firm than many would be today on the question of civil or political rights. The story is complicated and gains in depth with the telling.

The debates, for Guelzo, ultimately reflect two views of America. Lincoln's view places moral value at the center of what democracy and the United States is about. Slavery was morally wrong and repugnant to the Declaration of Independence even though its existence was acquiesced in by the Framers in the Constitution. For moral reasons, Lincoln believed, the expansion of slavery could not be tolerated. Douglas, in contrast, represented a processual view of the United States and of freedom. He wanted to defuse conflict over the slavery issue, to avoid the making of value judgments on the matter, and to allow each community, in essence, to set its own rules. As Guelzo summarizes the difference between Lincoln and Douglas (at 311):

"At the deepest level, what Lincoln defended in the debates was the possibility that there could be a moral core to a democracy. The fundamental premise of Douglas's popular sovereignty was that democratic decision-making, in order to be free, has to be unencumbered by the weight of factors which are nonpolitical in nature, wuch as kinship, ethnic identity or moral and religious obligations. The purpose of politics is not to lead 'the good life' or to pursue what is good and true by to ensure fair play, toleration, and personal autonomy."

Lincoln and Douglas thus presented alternatives that our nation faces, in some form today: "what was the American experiment about? Finding space to be free, or finding an opportunity to do right? ... Enlightened self-interest or beloved community? And was there a way to hold on to one without entirely losing a grip on the other?" p. 314

In reading Guelzo's study, I was reminded of an earlier book on the debates by Harry Jaffa, "The Crisis of the House Divided" which has less historical information that Guelzo's book but which raises essentially similar philosophical issues about American democracy.

In this time of elections and national debate, Guelzo has written an outstanding book to help Americans understand their past and to understand the directions in which they wish to go.

Robin Friedman
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on March 5, 2008
I thoroughly enjoyed Allen Guelzo's latest offering, "Lincoln and Douglas." He does an excellent job of recreating the most turbulent era in our nation's history and immersing the reader in the lives and controversies of the participants. You can almost hear the hecklers at the debates and smell the smoke each time Douglas fires his "little giant" canon from the back of his campaign train. However, I think the book could have been a bit better.

First, I would like to have seen more critical analyses of the positions the two candidates advanced during the campaigns. The little chart the author provides at the conclusion of his summary of each debate--a chart that notes the points made and rejoinders offered by Lincoln and Douglas--was not enlightening.

Second, Mr. Guelzo is quick to underscore the flaws in Douglas' "Popular Sovereignty" doctrine and his defense of the Dred Scott decision, but all too often he gives Lincoln a pass, glossing over his missteps and ignoring the flaws in his arguments. Some examples:

--He frequently accuses Douglas of playing the "race card" (which, of course, Douglas did), but attempts to explain Lincoln's opening remarks at the Charleston debate--where Lincoln expressly states that the black race is inferior and can never enjoy the same civil liberties as white people--as a "carefully calculated statement."
--He conveys the impression that the decision of the prominent Whig politician, John Crittenden, to publicly voice his opposition to Lincoln's candidacy during the final week of the campaign was a Douglas dirty trick, his "October surprise." But Mr. Crittenden's views were not the product of Douglas' nefariousness; rather, they had their genesis in Crittenden's visceral reaction to Lincoln's "House Divided" speech at the Republican convention--a speech that all the major Republican leaders advised him in advance to tone down, but Lincoln refused.
--He fails to explore the inherent inconsistencies in Lincoln's notion that blacks enjoy natural rights, which prevent their enslavement, but can never enjoy the same civil rights as white people, which means the best they can hope for is second-class citizenship.
--Lincoln's reliance on the Declaration of Independence lacked any credible legal foundation, and his assertion that the Founding Fathers clearly intended to confine slavery to the south and set it on a course of ultimate extinction was a bit of a stretch. Even Lincoln privately acknowledged at the end of the campaign that he was making a moral, not a legal, argument and that the Declaration of Independence imposes no legal obligations on anyone. And if the founders had truly devised a system to contain and eventually exterminate slavery, it would not have been necessary to amend the Constitution and spill the blood of 620,000 Americans.

I do not mean to diminish what Lincoln accomplished during this campaign, and he truly was our greatest president (George Washington, however, was the greatest American; there is a difference). But we do ourselves and our history a disservice when we fail to critically assess the words and deeds of our saints as well as our sinners.

One final word: don't just read this book; read the debates themselves. I promise you that you will profit from the exercise and that you will find yourself disagreeing with Mr. Guelzo on several points (though, as I noted above, he has written a terrific book).
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on February 15, 2008
This book stands as a testament to Wavy Gravy's sage observation that the simple fact that everything has changed doesn't mean that anything is different. We my be more than 100 years removed from the Lincoln-Douglas debates but in many ways the core issues haven't changed much, from the moral and ethical dilemmas that we face, the concerns about how our institutions function to the vestiges of the class struggle in America and how those struggles affect it's citizens ability to make their way in the world.

At their core the debates were about slavery as an institution. As is so often the case the pyrotechnics revolved around more technical issues--the correctness of the Dred Scott ruling by the supreme court, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the procedural process of "Democratizing" the spread of slavery and so on. But I reality the debates were about whether America as a nation had lost its way, its soul, its connection with the values that drove its emergence in the first place.

America was a deeply divided and frustrated nation in the antebellum period, not unlike today. And the debates were framed between two men who reflected some of the same societal divisions that mark today' political process--a true "man of the people" in Lincoln, the--let's face it--mainly poor self made man who saw the debate from one very distinct perspective and Douglas, the wealthy and pampered man of power and privilege, who saw it from a decidedly different vantage point.

This fascinating, compact and enlightening read gives us a wealth of insights--into the men, into the issues, into the debates and into the fundamental issues that always have and no doubt always will fracture this nation. It is an incredibly timely and providential gift to us at a time where we must once again navigate between the diatribes of the extremes to try to find a path towards truth and national salvation.
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on September 14, 2013
This book is an excellent one. Dr. Guelzo certainly knows his stuff.

Rather than focusing the book primarily on the seven debates between Lincoln and Douglas, Guelzo expands the picture and examines in detail the entire political campaigns of 1858 in order to give the debates context. "Lincoln and Douglas" taught me much I didn't know about Lincoln as a man and as a politician (sometimes we forget that in addition to being one of the greatest U.S. presidents in history, he also had to maneuver the political scene of his day - and boy, could he maneuver).

One star off for a lot of political jargon (which, being quite young in the world of elections and voting, I didn't quite understand) and for not printing the full texts of the debates in the book. Still, I recommend it highly.

On a side note, I had the privilege of listening to Dr. Guelzo speak at my college last month, and he is a wonderfully knowledgable historian and the most eloquent speaker I've ever listened to. If you ever have a chance to hear him present on CIvil War topics, go with a notebook, pen, and high expectations.
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VINE VOICEon May 17, 2008
This book offers the debates in the context of the Illinois senatorial campaign of which they are a part. Guelzo narrates the events, analyzing and explaining the strategy and tactics of both sides. The Republicans thought that they could upset Douglas, who was crippled in a number of ways.

President Buchanan had cut off Douglas's support from the normal party organization because Douglas had failed to back Buchanan's attempt to railroad the obviously fraudulent Lecompton constitution (which would have admitted Kansas to the Union as a slave state) through Congress. Buchanan cut off Douglas's patronage and largely replaced the Douglas men holding patronage jobs in Illinois (and elsewhere), leaving Douglas with campaign finance and organization problems.

Douglas was also under pressure because his opposition to Lecompton had cost him much of his support in the South and thus jeopardized his ambitions for the presidency in 1860. Douglas knew that Southerners would look carefully at his campaign positions in 1858, weighing them for acceptability to the South.

And those positions would be taken in the wake of the recently decided Dred Scott decision in which the U. S. Supreme Court stated that no territorial government could constitutionally limit slavery in the territory. There seemed to be no reason why this ruling would not logically also apply to the states, to the alarm of free states in the North. Dred Scott thus imperiled Douglas's cherished doctrine of popular sovereignty and further hampered his presidential ambitions by compromising him in both North and South.

Lincoln's campaign had its own problems. The Republicans were not only a new party but a clear minority in Illinois. The Democrats controlled the state legislature, and U. S. senators were then elected by the legislatures and not by direct popular vote. In 1858 Lincoln was a relatively little known figure outside party circles even in Illinois, and the election was in essence a series of contests to elect Republican legislators who would then vote in the legislature to elect Lincoln to the U. S. Senate. Lincoln was also aware that Douglas was coyly flirting with the national Republican party, where some of the senior leaders hoped to steal Douglas from the Democrats and possibly make him the party's presidential nominee in 1860. Lincoln felt that bringing Douglas to the party would hopelessly compromise the Republicans's opposition to the expansion of slavery, a founding principle of the party. He seems to have adjusted his strategy deliberately in order to prevent this from happening.

Guelzo relates the ins and outs of the campaign superbly. The story shows the brilliance of Abraham Lincoln as a practicing politician. People could and did argue who had won a particular debate, but overall Lincoln (though he narrowly lost the election) tied Douglas into knots. He forced Douglas to take positions that hurt him not only in Illinois but nationally, both North and South. As Guelzo makes clear, Lincoln's tactics probably destroyed any realistic hopes Douglas had for the presidency and thus all but destroyed him as a major national figure.

Amazingly it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for Douglas, who had to soldier on while watching his national ambitions wrecked by the unexpectedly capable Lincoln. Douglas was a prominent and successful speaker and politician and, though arrogant and pompous, was far from stupid. He had to realize what was happening. Certainly as the debates and the campaign went on, Douglas's performances became increasingly uneven and his drinking increased markedly. Many thought that Douglas was clearly alcohol impaired at a number of his later campaign speeches and at the late debates. Guelzo, indeed, seems to think that Douglas (who died in 1861) in part drank himself to death and that the process began here.

Lincoln fared differently, of course. He was first brought to national prominence by the debates, which were reported throughout Illinois (with verbatim transcripts) and picked up by the national press of the day and publicized to intense interest throughout the country. This is one of the factors that led to the Cooper Union speech that many feel made Lincoln the Republican nominee in 1860.

My one problem with the book is that I am not sure that the debates quite live up to the subtitle of the book. First, it is very difficult to believe that Douglas, a consummate congressional politician rather than a profound thinker, had systematically created a philosophic position. It seems more likely that he formulated a simple formula (popular sovereignty) that would have at least superficial appeal both to North and South, be successful in Congress and not coincidently promote Douglas's own career and ambitions. He never explained the doctrine fully and clearly but kept it vague and tried to make it all things to all men. Douglas had great trouble responding to logical, constitutional and philosophic challenges such as those presented by Lincoln and by the U. S. Supreme Court through the Dred Scott case.

More important, though, is the fact that both Lincoln's and Douglas's positions had been around for a long time. Lincoln's view was that the laws of a free republic must ultimately be linked to basic, universal and overriding moral principles. This seems to be a variant of natural law theory, a long tradition in legal philosophy. Assuming that Douglas did have a coherent philosophic position, it was that any law made by a majority of the people through their representatives and by methods in accordance with due process was a proper law and beyond legal or moral challenge. This too is a long-standing theory. Indeed the Founders of 1789 were sufficiently aware of such ideas that they struggled to make the nascent Constitution proof against the "tyranny of the majority."

So the debates did not make new revelations. Guelzo is correct, I think, in his belief that the two positions constitute opposite ends of the spectrum and have been more or less in tension in the polity of the U. S. from the start to the present. But they were not first defined in the 1858 debates. Of course authors frequently do not determine the titles to their books, which are frequently titled by publishers in ways that will (they hope) get the book attention from potential reviewers and buyers. However this may be, the subtitle seems to me to overstate the case. The book itself is a wonderful evocation of the time and place and some of its great personalities in riveting action.
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on February 18, 2008
Lincoln and Douglas is a close analysis of the monumental series of debates between Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln and his opponent for the US Senate Stephen Arnold Douglas. Lincoln lost the election since the popular vote for president did not take effect until 1913. The Illinois legislature chose Douglas to remain in office after a brutal, sprited campaign between tne Springfield lawyer and the Little Giant.
Lincoln came in as the underdog. He had served a single term as congressman in the 1840s when he strongly opposed the Mexican War. The Kentucky born self-educated Lincoln was a well-to-do lawyer, former Whig and admirer of Henry Clay the great compromiser of the north-south sectional dispute.
Stephen Douglas was a Vermonter who had moved west to Ohio and Illinois, He was a good businessman and skilled in political oratory. Douglas had won fame for the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska act overturning the Missouri Compromise on the spread of slavery. Douglas was the chief proponent of "popular sovereignity" in which a territory could vote for or against slavery prior to admission as a state. Lincoln knew this would lead to the spread of chattel slavery and led to conflict. Douglas had split with the Democratic administratio of James Buchanan. Douglas did so since he opposed the Lecompton constitution which was an effort to make that city the capital of a new state where slaveholding would be permitted. Douglas also favored the Supreme Court Dred Scott decision by which a fugitive must by law be returned to the owner regardless of where the slave was residing at the time (Scot fled to free Minnesota but was forced back into his chains). Douglas was a white supremist who was concerned with democratic process by which the majority rules in their best interest. douglas had poor health and was an alcoholic.
Lincoln led the new Republican party in Illinois. He believed democracy must obey a moral law calling on the equality of all persons. He did believe that blacks were inferior to whites but argued that the Constitution implied that one day all Americans should be granted citizenship and freedom under just law. Lincoln quoting the Bible insisted that the United States could not exist "half slave and half free " as he declared in his famous "House Divided" speech.
The seven debates moved the candidates from northern Illinois to Southern Illinois known as Little Egypt. The debates took place in:
Ottowa on August 21, Freeport on August 27, Jonesboro on September 15,
Charleston on September 18, Galesburg on September 18 (same day as Charleston), Quincy on October 13 and the final debate at Alton on Oct. 13th. Lincoln and Douglas traveled separately on trains, wagons and logged thousands of miles. The two men had little love for one another.
Although Lincoln lost the election he was propelled into the national spotlight through the burgeoning printing of elections in newspapers. He would win the Presidency of the United States in 1860 defeating Douglas who led the northern Democrats, John Bell of the Constitutional Party and John C. Breckinridge who ran with the support of the southern Democrats favoring slavery and states rights.
Dr. Guelzo is a renowned Lincoln/Civil War scholar and this new book will only enhance his reputation. The book is well illustrated relying on a great deal of primary source material.
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on May 24, 2008
This is an almost day by day account of how the 1858 campaign for US Senator from Illinois was conducted btween Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. The author does a good job of putting you in the times and explaining the issues of the day. It is particularly strong in dealing with the pracical objections to Douglas' notion of popular soverignity in light of the Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott case.

The tight focus on the debates themselves was probably a tactical error on the author's part. They only had seven face-to-face debates and the book focuses entirely on them, with the result that by the 3rd or 4th debate, the events and the format of the book are repetitious.

Ironically, the author himself points out that it was the campaign,not just the debates that launched Lincoln toward the presidency, but the book itself only deals with the debates.
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on March 19, 2008
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates in 1858 are largely remembered today because they brought an obscure Illinois lawyer and politician, Abraham Lincoln, to national prominence. Yet as this book demonstrates they also illuminate the confused and often contradictory U.S. attitudes towards slavery and race in the turbulent pre-Civil War years.

The Republican Party of the 1850's was formed from the imploding Whig Party and disaffected members of the then Democratic Party around a common theme that slavery, the peculiar institution of the South should be contained within the bounds set by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This not surprising in that the compromise was the work of Whig Henry Clay whose memory was still revered by many Whigs, including Lincoln. Under this compromise Missouri entered the U.S. as a slave state, but slavery would be excluded from all portions of the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase above latitude 36 30. Now the Republican Party including Lincoln made it clear repeatedly that they were not abolitionists. They did not want to abolish slavery where it already existed, but only to contain its expansion. They feared being overwhelmed in congress by slave holding states. Conversely, by the 1850's the slave holding states begin to fear that as the territory of purchase started to develop into states, they would be overwhelmed in the congress by non-slave states and slavery itself would be at risk.

The Democratic Party of the time not exactly a pro-slavery party, but it was considerably less adamant than the republicans in wanting to contain the growth of slavery. It was seen by most as the party most sympathetic to the slave holding states of the south. Stephan A. Douglas arguably the most prominent member of the party hoped to maintain both party unity and to give the Democrats something like parity with burgeoning Republican Party. He therefore successfully overthrew the Missouri Compromise in favor of allowing each state to determine the status of slavery in that state. This `popular sovereignty' bill infuriated the Republicans and as it turned out failed to satisfy the slave holders. It was this bill more than anything else that persuaded Lincoln to embark on a series of debates with Douglas.

The Debates and their back ground make for some fine reading. Yet it is discouraging to read how nobody including Lincoln really considered the African-American, either free or slave, to be equal to what was called the `white man'. Not even the majority of the abolitionists were willing to treat them as equals. Fredrick Douglass who was not only the equal of many white men, but superior to most was virtually ignored, insulted, or at best treated as an aberration. This is the unpleasant part of what is a very good book.
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on October 6, 2008
I'll endorse compliments already expressed and confine new praise to the three features of this book that impressed me most.

First, this book does a terrific job of placing the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates within the contexts of their separate campaigns. It reminds us that Lincoln and Douglas were not just campaigning against each other, but also against the Democratic Administration of President James Buchanan (another candidate for worst president ever). Both had to raise money, stage rallies, attract crowds, and rely on allies to publicly declare that they had soundly defeated their opponent.

Second, Guelzo shows in detail how Lincoln had to work within the newly formed Republican Party, and maneuver between its powers in Chicago, its national leaders (several of whom became Lincoln's rivals), and his personal advisers, making a series of unpleasant choices between them. The Chicago party leaders arranged for the debates and did their best to control what Lincoln said and didn't say. Lincoln resisted them at his own risk.

Third, the book is very well written, thoroughly documented, and carefully focused. It reveals in chapter after chapter how party politics have worked in Illinois and in the United States, how newspapers functioned as their tools, what motives (including white supremacy) fueled anti-slavery voters, and what Lincoln learned from one debate to the next. Lincolnophiles will much appreciate the book for its recognitions of Lincoln's blunders, regrets, recoveries, and growing political skills.
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on January 7, 2015
This guy is very good -- and he "gets it" that Douglas with his friends passed Kansas Nebraska Act, and lied. They were not for popular sovereignty, because Douglas's friend Atchison the other guy who helped pass KS act, then went to Kansas and started terrorizing and killing to PREVENT anyone from even speaking about slavery. This is not a minor point, it could not be more basic. So many "historians" just believe Douglas was interested in popular sovereignty -- because that is what he said, But he said a LOT of things, and he did things, he helped open up slavery in KS then personally prevented KS from getting their paperwork for admission to free state, into hands of President and Congress. Douglas did that . Douglas sold out to Jeff Davis and David Rice Atchison. This is not a theory, this is what happened. WHile Guelzo doesn't seem up on the connection to Atchison, at least he knows Douglas was lying when he spoke about popular sovereignty
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