Book Review: The Writings Of Abraham Lincoln: Volume 3

The Writings Of Abraham Lincoln:  Volume 3:  The Lincoln-Douglas Debates I, by Abraham Lincoln

As someone who has read and appreciated the Lincoln-Douglas debates as written by others, especially the late and great Harry Jaffa, it is worthwhile to see how these speeches were recorded at the time.  It might seem in our age of instant sound bytes that the American people would be unable to appreciate the sort of argumentation that these speeches engaged in, but one of the most salient points is that even when the long Lincoln-Douglas speeches were being given, and each of the debates includes three hours of speeches divided equally between the two, it is common for the speaker to lament that he does not have enough time to completely discuss a particular matter of interest and so in light of covering the most material possible that some elements have to be passed over, and likewise each of the speakers laments the fact that they have to deal with matters that they would prefer not to discuss while at the same time trying to discomfit the other speaker with some matter that is viewed as being a problem.  The result is a fascinating series of political chess moves that continues to be worthwhile of study and application even at this late date.

This book covers the preliminaries of the Lincoln-Douglas campaign in 1858 as well as the first three of the debates.  The book begins with the House Divided Speech that has lasted throughout history as a poignant metaphor for the state of the United States in the late 1850’s as the Civil War approached.  Other speeches lament the malapportionment of the Illinois legislature that allowed the Democrats to elect more legislators with a smaller number of voters.  We see Douglas’ response to Lincoln’s challenge and the negotiations that both of them undertook to make the contest between the two of them and to cut out the breakaway Democratic candidate who was mounting a “third party” challenge to Douglas from the right.  The book also includes the first three debates between the two that took place in Ottawa, Freeport, and Jonesboro.  The Freeport debates are most notable for the questions that Lincoln asked Douglas and then pounced on the answers as a way of denying Douglas the opportunity to rebuild his electoral coalition with the South, even if they helped Douglas with Illinois voters who were hostile to the national Democratic party.

One of the fascinating aspects of this book (and the next volume in the series as well) is the way that Lincoln’s writings is viewed as including Douglas’ writings because the debate was such a back and forth that to view either Lincoln or Douglas’ statements in isolation without the other would be to lose a lot of the context that makes both of them compelling political figures of the time.  There is one element that makes these debates a bit fascinating and somewhat bizarre, and that is the way that a query that is asked by one speaker will not be answered in that speech but in the next speech after the respondent has had the time to prepare, and then include their own attempt at gotcha questions for the other speaker that will not be answered in the next speech.  As well, the supposedly different tone of the speakers and various accusations of skulduggery on both sides are also one of the more fascinating parts of these speeches, which include both a high-tone of political philosophy along with plenty of mud-slinging and accusations of moral turpitude as a way of discrediting the opponent from high office in a way that would not lead to a deadly duel.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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