Book Review: The Writings Of Abraham Lincoln: Volume 4

The Writings Of Abraham Lincoln:  Volume 4:  The Lincoln-Douglas Debates II, by Abraham Lincoln

This volume covers the last four of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and by this time in the reading the reader is likely familiar with the pattern that the debates took, with one of the speakers having an hour to speak, the second speaker having an hour and a half, and then the first speaker having a thirty-minute rebuttal to have the last word.  As Douglas was the incumbent and the more familiar name to audiences, he ended up with four debates, including the last one, where he had the last word, to Lincoln’s 3.  That said, when one is reading these debates and their text later on, this imbalance hurts less because Lincoln’s rhetoric is superior and we know that Lincoln’s overall strategy of denying Douglas the support of Southerners was successful in large part because of his decision to force Douglas to argue for a position by which free-soilers could nullify the Dred Scott decision by denying slave codes to support the property rights of slaveowners.  Meanwhile, Douglas’ attempts to refer to decade-old political slurs of Lincoln as spotty, which occurs over and over again in these pages, fall short.

The materials of this book mainly consist of the last four debates between Lincoln and Douglas, which took place in Charleston, Galesburgh, Quincy, and Alton.  Included as well as the twelve hours of debate between the two, where both Lincoln and Douglas repeatedly ask the audience to be silent but where the audience is continually adding humorous and at times pointed commentary (as when one audience member points out that what Douglas considers to be ridiculous regarding a Supreme Court decision that would make slavery national was considered ridiculous before the Dred Scott decision), thus participating themselves, are extracts from a speech by Douglas and from a speech by Senator Trumbull that provide context to the political accusations being made in the fourth debate.  By the end of this book the reader has a good idea of the tactics of Lincoln and Douglas, and in the moral superiority of Lincoln’s approach to the cringeworthy efforts of Douglas to label Republicans as “black” or to insist that Lincoln’s desire to recognize the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to blacks is for selfish motives of desiring to mix the races, an issue which would long roil American politics, it must be admitted.

In reading these speeches, especially if one has read the previous volume, one gets a sense of the mix between high and low politics that was taking place.  Douglas was trying to argue that he was the victim of plotting by Lincoln along with Buchanan to defeat Douglas and marginalize him and he whines that he is daily being written out of the Democratic party by the Washington Union, a pro-administration paper.  On the other hand, Lincoln argued that Douglas was part of a conspiracy to make slavery nationwide by reducing the moral hostility that the North had against slavery.  While Douglas tried to paint Lincoln (and Trumbull) as abolitionists, and to divide the two given their difference as being ex-Whig and ex-Democratic respectively, Lincoln pointed out the ethical demands of the Declaration of Independence to seek universal recognition of human rights for all, including minority groups within the United States.  If we agree more with Lincoln than with Douglas, we should at least recognize the political debate that was taking place that forced Lincoln to adopt an elevated and egalitarian political worldview while simultaneously and steadfastly denying that he was an abolitionist, something that would become increasingly challenging once the Civil War started.  But that is getting ahead of ourselves, I suppose.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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