THE GREAT DEBATES
by Robert E Sanders

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Introduction

"Suddenly came an event. Lincoln wrote a challenge. Douglas met it. A debate was to be staged. The two men were to stand on platforms together and argue in seven different parts of the state with all Illinois watching, and the whole country listening."

Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, 1858, was crowded with bands, banners, street vendors and cheering thousands, the sine qua non of political campaigning then as now. The crucial morning had arrived for the first of seven "Great Debates" between the powerful judge Stephen Arnold Douglas and the "unknown" Abraham Lincoln, candidates for the Senate from Illinois.

About 12,000 persons converged on the site by foot, horse, buggy, canal boat and rail. The anxious, noisy crowd gathered around a covered wooden platform in the public square where the "Little Giant" and the "Tall Sucker" (as the press tagged them) would confront each other for posterity.

The multitude had grown so thick when the hour of the debate arrived that it took the participants 30 minutes to make their way to the unpretentious platform. Like curious monkeys, some adventurous spectators climbed atop the roof; the lumber awning broke, dropping several boards in the midst of the Douglas delegation.

The sophisticated Douglas was an imposing figure, the most powerful man in the Democratic Party. Lincoln, gangly and oddly dressed, was a relatively obscure Republican Congressman, clearly the underdog. Lincoln's supporters insisted the debates were a mistake. But a Senatorial toga hung in the balance.

Newspaper shorthand experts recorded every word of the three-hour debate on extension of slavery and the reports were carried by virtually every newspaper in the country. The "Great Debates" soon developed into the Number One story everywhere.

Lincoln and Douglas continued their face to face verbal battles in Freeport (August 27), Jonesboro (September 15), Charleston (September 18), Galesburg (October 7), Quincy (October 13) and finally to Alton on October 15. Only 6,000 spectators heard the finale of the 21 hours of debate.

The second meeting, which attracted 15,000 persons, resulted in a chain of events that altered the course of American political history.

Before the debate began, Lincoln showed the text of the four questions he intended to ask Douglas to his good friend, Joseph Medill, then editor of the Chicago Press and Tribune. Medill passed on three of the questions, but was aghast at one. He attempted to persuade Lincoln not to use it, but the question was included and marked the turning point of Lincoln's political career.

At the climax of his summation speech, Lincoln turned to Douglas and asked: "Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way and against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits, prior to the formation of a State Constitution?"

Douglas' answer to that deceptively simple question became known as the "Freeport Heresy" and ultimately ruined his political career. Historians say the reply lost him the support of the South and, two years later, the Presidency. Because the South would not support Douglas, the Democratic Party split at the 1860 nominating convention. He did, however, win the Senate seat from Lincoln.

As a result of exposure during the debates and through newspaper coverage, Lincoln emerged a national figure even though the loser. The rest is history. He went on to be nominated as the Republican candidate for President in 1860 and won handily. Opposing three other candidates (including Douglas), Lincoln received 1,866,352 popular votes. His platform opponent polled 1,375,157 and faded into obscurity.

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One hundred and two years later, another pair of politicians mounted a mutual rostrum and made political as well as broadcasting history.

The 1960 electronic version of the Lincoln-Douglas confrontations -- four "Great Debates" between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy was unprecedented in every way.

Never before had two Presidential candidates met face-to-face on the same platform to exchange views and, of course, never on radio and television.

The debates attracted the largest recorded audience in history. NBC estimated 120 million persons in the United States alone saw one or more of the debates on television. At least 20 million more heard them on radio.

Additional millions in 100 other countries saw delayed videotapes and kinescopes and heard the series in their native tongues.

The ratio in audience is 6,250 to 1 when the initial debate between Lincoln and Douglas is compared (using U.S. figures alone) with the approximately 75 million persons who viewed the 1960 opener.

Ten per cent more Americans than ever before went to the polls and voted for one of the two debate participants. The semi-official tabulation released by the Clerk of the House of Representatives puts Kennedy's margin at 119,450 votes out of a grand total 68,836,385 ballots cast. The difference was less than two-tenths of one per cent, the narrowest in history.

Election returns reveal that 64.5 per cent of the nation's 107 million eligible voters participated, a record high. The 1956 campaign, in contrast, attracted 60.5 per cent of the voters, also a record at that time.

No other television series had ever agitated as much criticism or attracted as much praise. Dr. Frank Stanton, president of CBS, Inc., called the debate series "the only significant step forward in campaigning since the start of popular elections." Critics, on the other hand, labeled the confrontation as "dangerous," "superficial," "useless,'' as "a corrupting force" and as "a menace."

Americans of both major parties had the unprecedented opportunity to simultaneously look at, listen to and thoughtfully compare their candidate and the opposition. Neither candidate individually could have attracted so many voters of the opposing party, in addition to the large "undecided" vote. In the past, a Democrat would be apt to switch off the radio or television when the Republican candidate came on - and vice versa.

During the pre-debate campaigns, the protagonists could only "debate" controversial issues by issuing mimeographed press releases, calling impromptu news conferences and by incorporating the topic into speeches. The Republican candidate, for example, might proclaim "I'm for it and here's why" in Jewett, Texas. His Democratic opponent might follow up a few days later with "He's wrong and I can prove it" in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Amid the ballyhoo, the accusations and answers became gobbledygook to the voter who did not have the time or the inclination to follow developing stories. Confusion and apathy generally followed. The ad lib discussions made possible by the debates were an educational contrast welcomed by the voters of the nation.

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Democracy in Action

Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon were the undisputed stars of the 1960 election year. Their stage? Anywhere a television camera or a radio microphone could be set up. And they had a large supporting cast.

Last year's [1960] candidates - at all levels - spent more time in front of more television cameras and radio microphones than any other similar group in history. The added impact given to the myriad campaigns dramatically demonstrated that radio and television had become potent, indispensable political tools and, often, the key to victory.

The nominating conventions of 1948 and Inauguration Day of President Harry S. Truman in January, 1949, were the first nationally important events televised for large audiences. However, the 1952 Presidential campaign was the first to be televised nationally; the initial live transcontinental program had only occurred the year before. (Showing President Truman opening the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference in San Francisco on September 1, 1951.)

The aura of novelty quickly disappeared. The magic of television exposure is today as much a necessity to campaigns at all levels as buttons, banners and babies.

Theodore H. White, writing in Saturday Review, estimated the two 1960 Presidential candidates would be seen in the flesh by not more than two million citizens, leaving about 178 million (counting those in the cradle or not far out of it) who would not have an opportunity to inspect personally Nixon's bushy eyebrows or Kennedy's untameable hair.

Although the country has shrunk with the advent of jet travel and instantaneous communications, the campaign trail to tiny hamlets on one day and to metropolitan centers the next remains a necessary and grueling aspect of modern campaigning.

The candidates' contrasting views on campaign issues would be reported, repeated and featured in the editorial columns of newspapers and magazines publishing millions of copies per day. But the personal touch was missing.

It would require an intimate media to project the images of the "real Jack" and the "real Dick" to the generally apathetic public. Radio had served a similar purpose for the late Franklin D. Roosevelt, but television-with its gargantuan audience potential- was the obvious medium for 1960.

An opinion poll based on the Rockefeller-Harriman gubernatorial race in 1958 had revealed that television ranked just under newspapers as the most important source of information in helping voters make up their mind. Forty per cent of those polled listed newspapers and 38 per cent picked television as their most important source.

Freedom of Information Center Publication No. 67, School of Journalism, University of Missouri.