Over the Hill

Clinton-Trump debates a far cry from Lincoln-Douglas

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump debate Wednesday during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump debate Wednesday during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas. AP

I’m just a local newspaper columnist, but I have to say I don’t remember any presidential candidate debates ever being as impolite as this year’s. I watched all three of the televised squabbles between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. They were painful.

Political debates don’t have to be crudely disrespectful. The debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 are noted in history books. Lincoln and Douglas competed that year for a United States Senate seat. Then two years later in 1860, both men ran for president, Lincoln as the Republican Party candidate and Douglas, the Northern Democratic Party candidate.

There were two other presidential candidates that year: one for the Southern Democratic Party and one for the Constitutional Union Party. They came in second and third. Lincoln came in first with 39.8% of the votes. Douglas actually received the second-most votes, 29.5%, but he came in last because he carried only one state, Missouri.

Lincoln had no time to savor his victory. He was elected president on Nov. 6, 1860, and inaugurated the following March 4. During those four months, seven Southern, slave-holding states seceded from the union and formed the Confederacy. The Civil War was about to begin.

The famed Lincoln/Douglas debates had occurred two years earlier, when both men were campaigning for the office of U.S. senator from Illinois. Douglas was the incumbent senator. Lincoln sought to replace him. They had seven debates in various parts of the state.

Unlike today’s TV debates, each man was allowed 90 minutes. The first speaker began by speaking for 60 minutes. Then his opponent spoke for 90 minutes. Finally the first speaker used his remaining 30 minutes to respond and conclude. Newspaper stenographers recorded their words in shorthand.

Their big issue was slavery, which was then legal in several states. The question was whether it should be allowed to spread to new states. Douglas was in favor of letting it grow and Lincoln opposed.

In their debate in Alton, Illinois, Lincoln said, “That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world.”

In the debate in Freeport, Illinois, Douglas closed with, “Those of you who believe the Negro is your equal and ought to be on an equality with you socially, politically and legally have a right to entertain these opinions and, of course, will vote for Mr. Lincoln.”

Lincoln got the most votes in the 1858 popular election for U.S. senator, but he still lost. In those days U.S. senators were elected by the state Senate, not by the ordinary voters. The state senators chose Douglas. But that was good, not bad. It left Lincoln available two years later to be our Civil War president.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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