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Odd Wisconsin Archive

A Real Debate


Last night's debate among the Democratic presidential candidates in Las Vegas was a far cry from the most famous political argument in American history. That was the series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) held in 1858 to discuss whether or not slavery should be expanded into the new territories of the U.S.

Instead of brief statements and clever sound bites, the Lincoln-Douglas debates consisted of three hours of closely argued speeches. The first candidate would speak for an hour, then the other for an hour and a half, and finally the first would conclude with a half hour rejoinder. There was no television or Web coverage, of course, though the candidates' flights of rhetoric were occasionally interrupted by cheers or jeers from the audience.

Platteville newspaper Martin Rindlaub (1838-1932) was one of many Wisconsin residents who heard at least one of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, and he left this recollection of it.

When Lincoln ran for president two years later, the text of the debates was printed in book form. The Society owns a copy of this book which Lincoln gave to Carl Schurz (1829-1906) of Watertown.

If you'd like to see the whole text of the most famous debates in the history of American politics, you don't need to come to Madison and examine that rare book (though you can, if you want to). Instead, you'll find all the debates online here, compliments of the National Park Service.

An article explaining the significance of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in American history, by Pulitzer Prize-winning Stanford history Professor Don E. Fehrenbacher (1920-1997), is included in the online edition of the Wisconsin Magazine of History.
:: Posted in Curiosities on November 15, 2007

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