Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Briefly - "Lincoln and Douglas"

According to author Alan Guelzo, from his latest book Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America [Simon and Schuster, 2008], much of the Lincoln-Douglas debate literature rests on the events themselves -- the 'battles' so to speak, leaving the 'campaign' aspect understudied. Addressing this deficiency, Guelzo frames the debates as dynamic events flowing through and around various local, state, and national political struggles. At the local level, the information controlling power of partisan newspapers (often the recipients of lucrative patronage appointments and printing jobs) is rightly considered. The turmoil over whether the federal government should accept the fraudulent Lecompton constitution (supported by Buchanan Democrats and vehemently opposed by Douglas) deeply fractured the Democratic party. President Buchanan wielded immense power as dispenser of patronage, and used it as a stick against Douglas Democrats in Illinois. I was surprised to learn to what degree eastern Republicans coddled Stephen Douglas in the wake of the Little Giant's Lecompton opposition, even to the point of pressuring Illinois Republicans not to oppose Douglas in 1858 in the hopes of winning him over. In state, many Whig-belt voters and recent ex-Democrats were also lukewarm Lincoln Republicans. In the end, neither candidate benefited from united party support.

As for the debates themselves, Guelzo keenly analyzes their structure and key arguments -- mainly over issues of popular sovereignty, the Dred Scott decision, black civil rights, and the addressing of various conspiracy claims. As a tracking aid for the reader, the author devised grid boxes for each debate, comprised of double columns outlining point and counterpoint [a nice touch]. More than anything else, the issue of slavery's extension was the central point of contention, with two key philosophical questions rising to the fore -- is the federal government's role merely a guarantor of the democratic process within explicit constitutional guidelines or are moral impositions central to its obligations? American democracy's struggle over this question continues today, albeit over issues far less cut and dried than human slavery.

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