Thought Possible

notes & magnifications, by J.E. Robertson
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OCTOBER 15, 2008 8:40PM

150 Years to the Day After Lincoln-Douglas: Obama-McCain

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The monumental series of 7 3-hour-long debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas ended on 15 October 1858, exactly 150 years to the day before tonight's third Obama-McCain televised 90-minute debate. The two Illinois politicians were competing for one of the state's two Senate seats, and their epic debates are considered a watershed for intellect in American politics, a transformative political moment and a media revolution that drove democracy's expansion in human society.

The debates were covered by major newspapers, who sent short-hand reporters to transcribe the entire content of the debates, then print and publish them in Chicago the following day, allowing the transcripts to be published in full in New York and Boston as soon as 2 to 3 days later. Nothing so comprehensive or instantaneous had happened in a media environment in the history of the world, and it had a profound effect on the vision Americans had of the nation and its future.

The jockeying for political pre-eminence was a minor part of the debates and the weight of intellectual arguments to support guiding principles was the primary focus. Lincoln led off the final debate with a note to his opponent about how he had grown during the campaign to better and more credibly challenge the sitting administration, a clear swipe at his prior inability to do so:

This is the seventh time Judge Douglas and myself have met in these joint discussions, and he has been gradually improving in regard to his war with the Administration. [Laughter, "That's so."] At Quincy, day before yesterday, he was a little more severe upon the Administration than I had heard him upon any occasion, and I took pains to compliment him for it. I then told him to "Give it to them with all the power he had;" and as some of them were present, I told them I would be very much obliged if they would give it to him in about the same way. [Uproarious laughter and cheers.] I take it he has now vastly improved upon the attack he made then upon the Administration. I flatter myself he has really taken my advice on this subject. All I can say now is to re-commend to him and to them what I then commended-to prosecute the war against one another in the most vigorous manner. I say to them again-"Go it, husband!-Go it, bear!" [Great laughter.]

It's an interesting footnote to history that the resonant orator and great emancipator was also talented in sparking laughter in his audience. Lincoln's role in the debates is curious, because the debates themselves were a national media phenomenon, and though he lost the 1858 Senate election, he was thrust onto the national stage, his arguments changed the course of American history, and two years later he would win the presidency. Though actively involved in politics, and one of the energetic founders of the Republican party, in 1854, he had served only two years in Washington, as a member of the House of Representatives, from 1847 to 1849, when he was elected president.

Lincoln and Douglas both put forth visions of legitimacy and justice within the rigors of a democratic constitutional republic, with Lincoln's Republicans suggesting the integrity of the state, the defender of liberty and justice across the territory, required a central decision on the question of slavery, specifically a universal ban, whereas Douglas argued that individual states should give the right of decision to their citizens, so that the process was more democratic.

In many ways, the two parties have changed sides on this question, with Republicans often defending the "Federalist" principle of a nation made up of independent states in which the states decide certain controversial issues of individual treatment or liberty, such as the right to abortion. The Democrats often urge federal government intervention to help steer or defend economic and social policy in such a way that the democratic principles of equality and fairness are upheld in all the states.

One of the great effects of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was that the eventual president exhibited before the entire nation how reason forces us to liberate and to treat as equal all people in a free society. Countering Douglas' defense of the idea that somehow the Declaration of Independece allows simultaneously for the equality of "all men" and for the institution of slavery, Lincoln said the following:

But if I say a word about it-if I attempt, as Mr. Clay said all good men ought to do, to keep it in view-if, in this "organized society," I ask to have the public eye turned upon it-if I ask, in relation to the organization of new Territories, that the public eye should be turned upon it-forthwith I am villified as you hear me to-day. What have I done, that I have not the license of Henry Clay's illustrious example here in doing? Have I done aught that I have not his authority for, while maintaining that in organizing new Territories and societies, this fundamental principle should be regarded, and in organized society holding it up to the public view and recognizing what he recognized as the great principle of free government? [Great applause, and cries of "Hurrah for Lincoln."]

The sense of his words is clear: it is logically impossible to both defend democracy and defend slavery. By confronting Judge Douglas in the court of reason, by forcing him to answer for his professed ideas, to exhibit understanding, judgment and an allegiance to the principles of a revolutionary democracy, Lincoln does what the American revolutionaries did with the language of British parliamentary law and Enlightenment philosophy, using the underlying reasoning to expand the population to which basic liberty was due.

By the acute use of reason, by the force of his challenge, by demonstrating the incoherence of his opponent's position, and by artfully echoing not just the language but the logic and the spirit of the nation's founding revolution, Lincoln re-established as the mainstream value that all people should share in the privileges of the freedoms available in the nation in which they live.

Though he lost the Senate race, Lincoln incentivized the public —by demonstrating that reason will take us further than doctrine or political expediency— to adopt the rationale of the abolitionist cause, and the restored belief in the democratic logic of the American revolution. He made it attractive to conceive of the United States as a nation founded on and committed to ideas, to just, transcendent and human ideas and principles.

Southern states would begin to secede in protest against the abolitionist agenda, and it would take a war to liberate the slaves held in the states of the Confederacy, but Lincoln's command of the talents of argument, challenging point by point, with legal, philosophical and moral references, the arguments of his opponents, transfixed the attention of the nation on the fine points of the most heated, most unfortunate controversy of the times. That law and liberty were linked to understanding, reason and fairness, was again clear, and that achievement would lead to Lincoln's election to the highest office in the land two years later.

Tonight, Sen. Barack Obama (like Lincoln, from Illinois) and Sen. John McCain (of a younger state, Arizona) will hold their last presidential debate, for 90 minutes (just half the time of the Lincoln-Douglas marathon events) on international television, before potentially hundreds of millions. The stakes are incredibly high, as after nearly two years of unofficial and later official campaigning, public opinion polling suggests a wide margin has opened up between the two candidates, in part based on the perception that Sen. Obama has performed better in the debates, has a more coherent message, and can be trusted to be cool in crisis.

Sen. McCain's campaign has changed the subject countless times in recent weeks, each time asserting that its immediate new strategy was the key to reaching into voters' hearts and minds, and each time slipping slightly further from impressing upon public opinion that Sen. McCain would be resilient or consistent in a time of crisis. The question of whether Sen. McCain will attack Sen. Obama's "character" by suggesting that people he has known may not have sound character themselves, has come to the fore, and an air of violent hostility has been directed by McCain supporters at Obama.

The philosophical confrontation between the two men is also a potentially serious examination of the challenges facing the nation and the virtues it could tap into to face those challenges. Aside from swipes at character issues, the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee have been pushing the argument that Sen. Obama, and the Democratic party, are pushing for a "redistribution of wealth". The term is essentially designed to suggest socialist tendencies, but ignores the real essence of the Obama economic and tax strategy.

Sen. Obama proposes to redirect tax revenues, through credits and in payment for public services, to the kind of spending that helps a society rebuild, that helps communities focus on improving basic conditions for the citizens living there. It is not a redistribution of wealth as much as it is a redirection of federal spending, and the atmosphere may mean it's the more relevant strategy.

Sen. McCain's economic and tax policies have been treated as out of touch and favoring the "super-rich". It is not clear that Sen. McCain intends to enrich the super-rich, as a matter of principle, and he uses that lack of clarity to his advantage, talking in as populist a manner as possible while defending an economic philosophy that actually does intend to redistribute wealth, from the public services sector to high-income earners and private business, under the assumption this will be beneficial for society as a whole.

If there were to be a philosophical issue that most engages the spirit and the crisis of the times, this would likely be it. The two senators may choose to favor rhetoric about the justice of economic conditions or the need to help spur an atmosphere of prosperity for those most in need, in order to make possible the real experience of liberty.

They may spar over the viable arguments for diplomacy, the military, preemptive war or checks and balances, but they may be able to take a calming breath if contemplating the distance between the bloody crisis of 1858 and the policy-disputes of 2008, epic and decisive as the moment may be for the future direction of the country. The stability of the nation may not be in question, but the values of a democratic society are, as always, both transcendent and in flux, and that is the force of the moment for these two candidates. []

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