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Lincoln And Douglas: The Debates That Defined America


Lincoln And Douglas: The Debates That Defined America

was 150 years ago that Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas
squared off in a political battle for the U.S. Senate. Not only was
this hotly contested series of debates garnering great attention in
the state of Illinois, they were also the focal point of the
country as a whole. Slavery, and its spread into new territories
and states as the Union expanded, was the pressing issue of the day
and a growing concern for everyone as the nation slowly ground its
way toward war.

Allen C. Guelzo approaches the debates in a way that few have ever
done. Rather than an outline of the political conflict with some
discussion of key talking points, he digs deeply into the very
heart of each campaign and lays some outstanding groundwork. To
understand the fiery rhetoric and passion within the debates, one
needs to understand the tumultuous times, and the decisions behind
them, that led to this match-up to begin with. Guelzo cuts to the
heart of the slave state/free state issue, explaining the troubles
in Kansas and Nebraska, the troublesome decision in the Dred Scott
Case and Douglas's firm belief in “popular sovereignty”
as the most democratic method by which states would determine their

Detailed within is also the birth of the Republican Party, which
was truly no more than a group of disillusioned Democrats from
Nebraska and Whigs, all who shared one supremely strong passion: a
complete loathing of Stephen A. Douglas. And it is interesting to
see within this framing and explanation that the genteel and iconic
Lincoln was, in fact, deeply opposed and outspoken against Douglas.
As such, seeing Lincoln and his fire to defeat Douglas and operate
within the political machine presents him as much more than the
regal presidential figure we have come to idolize and more of a
scheming and, ultimately, human figure. Guelzo also shows us that
Lincoln did win the popular vote for the Senate but that the
districting system in place in Illinois gave the election to
Douglas. However, the groundwork had already been laid for Lincoln
and his road to the White House.

More than just political issues of the day, the Lincoln-Douglas
debates were about the idea of democracy. Each candidate had their
own very strong view of the purpose and nature of the democratic
process and what it was meant to provide. Guelzo details each view
and highlights the benefits and the pitfalls of each, and
illustrates how some of those very conflicts are raging even in our
modern times. The debates were also the starting point for the
future of political conflict --- the creation of the face-to-face
system by which competitors would vy for votes from the same stage,
a format that Lincoln did not approve of.

The depth to which Guelzo goes into the debates and the campaigns
is tremendous, but in mining so deeply, he does not simply resort
to a dry delivery of historical footnotes. His passion for the
subject is evident in the text, and he presents it in a wholly
engaging and smooth reading manner. A two-time winner of the
Lincoln Prize, Guelzo will no doubt draw more attention and
accolades for this exceptional work, and deservedly so, for he has
taken an historical moment hidden behind the haze of reverence and
broken it down to its very core elements. In doing so, he has
illuminated the event and made it all the more impressive.


Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on December 30, 2010

Lincoln And Douglas: The Debates That Defined America
by Allen C. Guelzo

  • Publication Date: February 5, 2008
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743273206
  • ISBN-13: 9780743273206