Debate History (Part I) by Adam Tomasi

Debate history is a subject that I have never seen discussed beyond occasional storytelling about successful debaters from long ago. My hope is that it becomes a more popular area of analysis; it’s something that I’ve wanted to analyze in that it unites two things that I get most excited about: debate and history.

While I plan on eventually providing accounts of contemporary areas of debate history, I think that a good place to begin would be the first ever Lincoln-Douglas debates between, well, Lincoln and Douglas. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in seven debates across Illinois in 1858 for the Illinois senate seat; Douglas was the incumbent. The debates were well known for addressing, among other issues, slavery. Lincoln opposed the expansion of slavery beyond its present existence, and Douglas argued for “states’ rights.”

I chose these debates as the subject of my analysis because of my genuine curiosity about the historical origins of the name of our activity. In history class, when the Lincoln-Douglas debates were covered only in passing I would just smile and remark to my teacher that I am an LD debater. But, I think that these debates deserve further analysis beyond the amount of time spent on them in school.

I’ll be defending a more comical thesis that there are similarities between the original LD debates and today, but I think that a serious aside is important. Not only would it be wrong to suppose that Lincoln was an abolitionist in 1858 (he wasn’t; he only opposed future developments of slavery in states that did not yet have it), but also, neither candidate at the time believed in social equality between white people and black people (Lincoln eventually changed his mind; re: Gettysburg Address). Howard Zinn (my favorite historian) in A People’s History of the United States notes something Lincoln had said to his audience in the fourth debate in Charleston, IL:

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races (applause); that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

This is something to keep in mind so that we have a more honest understanding of a former president (that he was not always as anti-slavery and pro-equality as during the Civil War itself), but the purpose of this analysis is mainly to show similarities between debate conventions, techniques and rhetoric of the past and present.

I noticed the following similarities:

  1. Cards

In the Seventh Debate in Alton, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln goes for the Henry Clay card:

I will bring forward his evidence and let you see what he offers by way of showing that somebody more than three years ago had said negroes were not included in the Declaration. He brings forward part of a speech from Henry Clay-the part of the speech of Henry Clay which I used to bring forward to prove precisely the contrary. [Laughter.]…Hear what Mr. Clay said:

“And what is the foundation of this appeal to me in Indiana, to liberate the slaves under my care in Kentucky? It is a general declaration in the act announcing to the world the independence of the thirteen American colonies, that all men are created equal. Now, as an abstract principle, there is no doubt of the truth of that declaration; and it is desirable, in the original construction of society, and in organized societies, to keep it in view as a great fundamental principle. But, then, I apprehend that in no society that ever did exist, or ever shall be formed, was or can the equality asserted among the members of the human race, be practically enforced and carried out. There are portions, large portions women, minors, insane, culprits, transient sojourners, that will always probably remain subject to the government of another portion of the community.”

Lincoln, however, was not that great at lining down evidence.

  1. Issue Selection

Just as we would expect of a strategic rebuttal, Stephen Douglas collapsed to a single issue in his later speech against Lincoln. This was in the first debate in Ottawa, Illinois.

Mark Neely’s The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia indicates that:

Douglas charged Lincoln with trying to “abolitionize” the Whig and Democratic Parties. He also charged Lincoln had been present when a very radical “abolitionist” type platform had been written by the Republican Party…Lincoln during his turn did not respond to the questions and was on the defensive denying the allegations…In his rebuttal Douglas concentrated on the charge that Lincoln had been present when a very radical “abolitionist” type platform had been written…

  1. Resolutions

In the first debate in Ottawa, Illinois, Douglas read three resolutions that he noted were part of the Abolitionist platform. One of them is listed here. He stated:

I have the resolutions of their State Convention then held, which was the first mass State Convention ever held in Illinois by the Black Republican party…Here are the most important…:  1. Resolved, That we believe this truth to be self-evident, that when parties become subversive of the ends for which they are established, or incapable of restoring the government to the true principles of the constitution, it is the right and duty of the people to dissolve the political bands by which they may have been connected therewith, and to organize new parties upon such principles and with such views as the circumstances and exigencies of the nation may demand.

If LD resolutions were this long, there would be way too many T debates.

  1. Framework Debate (6th debate and NYT article)

Lincoln appealed to morality in criticizing the expansion of slavery beyond its present limits. This isn’t quite the same as LD framework debates, but the same idea is still present.

We have in this nation this element of domestic slavery. It is a matter of absolute certainty that it is a disturbing element…The Republican party think it wrong-we think it is a moral, a social and a political wrong. Because we think it wrong, we propose a course of policy that shall deal with it as a wrong…. we have no right at all to disturb it in the States where it exists…We insist on the policy that shall restrict it to its present limits…

A book review by Steven Smith of John Burt’s Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism says that Burt draws parallels between the moral arguments of Lincoln in these debates and that of Kant and Rawls. That seems odd to suggest in that I’m sure neither a modern-day Kantian nor Rawlsian would agree with Lincoln’s more limited take on abolitionism. Overall, I’m not sure how correct this parallel would be; that’s outside the scope of this article (I’d have to read the book).

  1. Travel

Just like national circuit debaters today, Lincoln and Douglas traveled a lot. The US National Park Service put together a map of the seven Lincoln-Douglas Debates:map

I’m sure that Lincoln and Douglas racked up a lot of horse-and-buggy miles.

  1. Clear! Douglas insisted he maintain clarity when giving a speech in the sixth debate in Quincy, Illinois:

Ladies and Gentlemen:– Permit me to say that unless silence is observed it will be impossible for me to be heard by this immense crowd…I desire to be heard rather than to be applauded…

If Lincoln and Douglas were speaking at 400 words-per-minute, especially considering how long their speech times were, they definitely would have gotten in more content. Speaking of speech times, that’s a nice segue to the last similarity.

  1. Official Speech Structure

The National Park Service notes that,

…In each debate either Douglas or Lincoln would open with an hour address. The other would then speak for an hour and a half. The first then had 30 minutes of rebuttal. In the seven debates, Douglas, as the incumbent, was allowed to go first four times.

Given that there’s no evidence suggesting that the first debater giving the last 30-minute speech could not make new arguments, whoever was the first debater would have the structural advantage. Douglas, going first four times, therefore had that structural skew in his favor. So, presume for Abe Lincoln because if the debates were close he did the better debating!



Howard Zinn. A People’s History of the United States. HarperCollins. 2003.

National Park Service. “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858.” Transcripts for debates 1-7 are here.

Steven Smith. “A Lincoln for Our Time: ‘Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism’ by John Burt.” The New York Times Sunday Book Review. February 14th, 2013.