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Debates that shaped a leader & a nation

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The Lincoln-Douglas debates 150 years ago, which strongly influenced a U.S. Senate race, a presidential election and the Civil War, offer lessons on how leaders should explain important issues. A thumbnail sketch:

  • Never before had an incumbent senator agreed to debate his challenger in public. As popular as he was, Douglas assumed he’d roll over Lincoln.
  • New technology amplified the debates. Halfway through each three-hour debate, runners took stenographers’ notes by train to Chicago, converting shorthand to transcripts, which were typeset and telegraphed around the country.
  • Lincoln became aware of his image, wearing a top hat to emphasize his height.
  • Douglas proclaimed himself for “popular sovereignty,” or the will of the people.
  • Lincoln favored limiting the spread of slavery to new states, Douglas favored ending controversy over slavery.
  • After losing the first debate, Lincoln laid a trap, asking Douglas whether popular sovereignty would allow settlers to ban slavery before their territory became a state. If Douglas said no, then popular sovereignty would be meaningless. Saying yes would anger Southerners. Douglas said yes.
  • In the next debate, Lincoln took the offensive, offering a watered-down brand of racism.
  • Lincoln continued to push new angles. Without retracting his own racist remarks, he challenged Douglas, saying that even though racism was popular, it was wrong, and that no one had a right to do wrong.
  • Next, Lincoln argued that every man has basic rights, while Douglas argued that if slaves were confined to the existing slave states, they’d overpopulate and starve.
  • In the final debate, Douglas appeared both ill and drunk, while Lincoln pounded home his argument that slavery equaled tyranny.

Lesson: Lincoln clearly had the upper hand in the debates. While he lost the Senate race to the incumbent, he won next time for president.

But the question, at the time, was whether he could lead. And the answer was yes.

— Adapted from “Face the Nation,” Fergus M. Bordewich, Smithsonian.

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