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Dr. Larry Arnn On The 7th Lincoln-Douglas Debate

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HH: On the Hillsdale Dialogue, the hour in which we go back through the biggest discussions, debates and books of the last 2,000 plus years with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College and his colleagues. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues available at All of Hillsdale’s many offerings available at And today is the day we wrap up our consideration of the seven epic Lincoln-Douglas debates on the day after the first Republican debate. Just a little bit different, Dr. Arnn, from October 15th, 1858 in Alton, Illinois, where two men went at it for three hours at the conclusion of their seven encounters, and then yesterday with 16 people spread over two debates and three hours. You can’t help but feel impoverished when we consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

LA: Well, turn the hours into minutes, and it’s exactly the same.

HH: It’s like dog years. Well, putting aside the debates of last night, I just got done talking with our mutual friend, Mark Levin, for two hours about his new book, Plunder and Deceit. And so this has been a very high end Friday show on the Hugh Hewitt Show. I do want to plunge quickly into this last debate, because there’s so much we have to cover. Would you set the stage? They’re exhausted by this time, aren’t they? We complain about our travel schedule, but these guys were iron men.

LA: Well, yes and no. So first of all, the last two debates happen on the river in Western Illinois, and that’s Whig country, and that’s where the election was finally decided. And both of them knew that it was going to be decided there. And so they hit each other hard in Quincy and Alton. Whigism in Western Illinois had become anti-slavery, yes, but even more, maybe, anti-abolition. And so there, Douglas hits Lincoln hardest about how he’s for Negro equality, and how abolition is going to come from Lincoln, and he’s going to tear the Union up. Now Allen Guelzo, I’m going to use him as a source. He wrote a very, everything he writes about Lincoln is tops, but he wrote a very fine book called Lincoln And Douglas, about the debates. And he repeats there many stories that even got into the Democratic press and from Democrats that Douglas was falling apart. Physically, he was weakening, and the word is, common, was that he was drinking himself to death at this time. And he didn’t live very much longer. He lived about two and a half years longer. And so his voices sounded like barking, they said. And although he was very well turned out in his clothes, he didn’t look good. His face was bloated. And so the way Guelzo reads these two debates, but we’re going to listen to them and you can judge for yourself, is that Lincoln was most effective here. And he put Douglas in a bad place. And this is where he needed to do it, and that’s counterintuitive, because the Republican Party made advances everywhere in the state except in the Whig belt where it came about as it had before, and that’s why Lincoln didn’t become a Senator.

HH: Now I want to tell people again, I have linked repeatedly the recreation of these debates by Richard Dreyfuss as Stephen Douglas and David Straithern as Abraham Lincoln. And I urge you again. We can only use a minute or two of these excerpts as we go along. The whole 21 hours deserve your attention. Go and buy it and listen to it. But this is Richard Dreyfuss. Imagine him bloated and perhaps he did not know to bark it up a little bit, but he opens with a salvo at Lincoln. He goes first in the last debate and last in the last debate. And he predicts what in fact would come, the war. But in this case, he assigns the blame for that coming war to Lincoln. Cut number one:

RD (as Douglas): How has the South lost her power as the majority section in this Union, and how have the free States gained it, except under the operation of that principle which declares the right of the people of each State and each Territory to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way. It was under that principle that slavery was abolished in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; it was under that principle that one half of the slaveholding States became free; it was under that principle that the number of free States increased until from being one out of twelve States, we have grown to be the majority of States of the whole Union, with the power to control the House of Representatives and Senate, and the power, consequently, to elect a President by Northern votes without the aid of a Southern State. Having obtained this power under the operation of that great principle, are you now prepared to abandon the principle and declare that merely because we have the power you will wage a war against the Southern States and their institutions until you force them to abolish slavery everywhere.

HH: Now Dreyfuss is magnificent here, Larry Arnn, maybe more so than Douglas was. But the power of the argument is that of the prophet of war, and assigning blame to Lincoln.

LA: I think this is also Douglas’ best argument, too. I think it’s both Lincoln and Douglas’ best argument. Lincoln, in both Quincy and Alton, and Douglas in Alton, and the reason is Douglas abandons his conspiracy theory. He stops making all these charges that Lincoln is surreptitiously for this and that. Now he says Lincolns wants me to address his principles. I will do it. And his principles are going to lead to a severing of the Union. And his principles depart from the founders who did leave the Union half-slave and half-free, a house divided. And so Douglas takes him on straighter here than in any of the other six debates.

HH: And Lincoln replies straighter. And this is, by the way, the greatness of these debates. And it’s why Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided is such a great book, and it’s why these seven conversations with Larry Arnn have been so popular with people. It reintroduces people to the idea that Lincoln brought the Declaration back to the center of the national debate. He did so here with David Straithern playing the part of Lincoln, cut number two:

DS (as Lincoln): I assert that Judge Douglas and all his friends may search the whole records of the country, and it will be a matter of great astonishment to me if they shall be able to find that one human being three years ago had ever uttered the astounding sentiment that the term “all men” in the Declaration did not include the negro. Do not let me be misunderstood. I know that more than three years ago there were men who, finding this assertion constantly in the way of their schemes to bring about the ascendancy and perpetuation of slavery, denied the truth of it. I know that Mr. Calhoun and all the politicians of his school denied the truth of the Declaration. I know that it ran along in the mouth of some Southern men for a period of years, ending at last in that shameful though rather forcible declaration of Pettit of Indiana, upon the floor of the United States Senate, that the Declaration of Independence was in that respect “a self-evident lie,” rather than a self-evident truth. But I say, with a perfect knowledge of all this hawking at the Declaration without directly attacking it, that three years ago there never had lived a man who had ventured to assail it in the sneaking way of pretending to believe it and then asserting it did not include the negro. I believe the first man who ever said it was Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case, and the next to him was our friend, Stephen A. Douglas. And now it has become the catch-word of the entire party.

HH: What a perfect summation, Larry Arnn.

LA: So I think, first of all, I think Abraham Lincoln with this and the next couple of passages from Lincoln loses the election, the Senate election, and wins the presidency. And just, I would add another word about the scene. There were still two weeks to go in the campaign after this, the last debate. And during that two weeks, they played racism, they put up posters of Negroes with the word equality to Lincoln, all that, all over the towns in the Whig belt along the river. And then John Crittenden, a politician from Kentucky who was probably the great inheritor of the mantle of Whigism, endorsed Douglas. And Lincoln had been afraid he would do that, and had been corresponding with him for months. And so Allen Guelzo’s reading is that that turned the election. But I also think that the clarity with which Lincoln said what he just said, and then the things that are going to follow, that means that he’s saying that we’re going to go down a road where we’re going to have to treat black people as people, and we’re going to have to respect their rights.

HH: And moreover that that’s what the framers believed.

LA: That’s right. And so Douglas is an innovator, and that means that in these passages, all of the rest of the debate and all of the debates, Lincoln is trying to close the distance between himself and Douglas. But in these passages about ultimately the human status of the Negro, Lincoln is making it as wide as he can.

HH: When we come back, we’ll talk about these passages and which as Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College says, Lincoln loses the Senate race in Illinois but wins the presidency right after the break.

— – — –

HH: I want to go back to where we left off, Lincoln going straight at Douglas and at the arguments that flow necessarily from the Declaration of Independence, which animated the Constitution, which informs our government to this day. Cut number 3:

DS (as Lincoln): And when this new principle-this new proposition that no human being ever thought of three years ago-is brought forward, I combat it as having an evil tendency, if not an evil design. I combat it as having a tendency to dehumanize the negro-to take away from him the right of ever striving to be a man. I combat it as being one of the thousand things constantly done in these days to prepare the public mind to make property, and nothing but property, of the negro in all the States of this Union. But there is a point that I wish, before leaving this part of the discussion, to ask attention to. I have read and I repeat the words of Henry Clay: “I desire no concealment of my opinions in regard to the institution of slavery. I look upon it as a great evil, and deeply lament that we have derived it from the parental Government, and from our ancestors. I wish every slave in the United States was in the country of his ancestors. But here they are; the question is how they can best be dealt with? If a state of nature existed, and we were about to lay the foundations of society, no man would be more strongly opposed than I should be, to incorporate the institution of slavery among its elements.

HH: So he’s quoting Henry Clay going right again at Douglas, and he says I combat it repeatedly, Larry Arnn. This is the most forceful he’s actually been in all these debates.

LA: That’s right, and he, and see, he’s worried about Crittenden, and his fears were justified. But Henry Clay was, you know, the leading Whig and from Kentucky. And so he’s using that to show that the train, the train of thought and principle that starts with the American Revolution, and let me say a word about that. There’s a wonderful letter from John Jay to the Abolition Society in England in about 1788. And he says in there that for most of our history, most of the people have just accepted slavery as a fact and not though much about it. But because of the Revolution, people began to see that it was a wrong. And that sentiment has grown continuously since the steps toward the Revolution began. And so Lincoln is tracing from 1763, when the first arguments came up, and remember what those arguments are about. Just because you’re born a king doesn’t mean you get to give us a law without our consent.

HH: Right.

LA: And they could begin to see that those arguments applied to all the people around them, including the black ones. That’s Jay’s account. And so Lincoln is going back to that sentiment, which grew under the principles of freedom that led to the Declaration of Independence. And from the Declaration of Independence, he’s going back to that, and he’s drawing a continuous chain of all of the statesmen in American history, including Henry Clay, and not including only Roger Taney and Stephen Douglas.

HH: And pointing to what will become the ultimate extinction of slavery. Cut number four, Straithern as Lincoln continues:

DS (as Lincoln): There again there is no mention of the word “negro” or of slavery. In all three of these places, being the only allusions to slavery in the instrument, covert language is used. Language is used not suggesting that slavery existed or that the black race were among us. And I understand the contemporaneous history of those times to be that covert language was used with a purpose, and that purpose was that in our Constitution, which it was hoped and is still hoped will endure forever-when it should be read by intelligent and patriotic men, after the institution of slavery had passed from among us-there should be nothing on the face of the great charter of liberty suggesting that such a thing as negro slavery had ever existed among us. This is part of the evidence that the fathers of the Government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end. They expected and intended that it should be in the course of ultimate extinction.

HH: And is that, Dr. Larry Arnn, where Abraham Lincoln wins the presidency?

LA: There and in the next one, too, because what people are looking for, you know, and people are very divided, you have to understand. The country was united about, you know, if John Jay is to be believed, and the literature is to be believed from the American Revolution, people came to understand by consensus that this thing is wrong. And then it gets to a place where it isn’t wrong among a wide group, right? I mean, there’s a positive good school, and so Douglas and Taney and others like them, they’re pretending to be, or attempting to be, between the positive good school and the slavery is a wrong school, and Lincoln’s trying to flush them out. But what people need is they need some plan about what to do about it, because that had been the befuddling thing all along. And Lincoln is explaining that just as there’s a legacy of principle against it, there’s a legacy of a plan against it, and that is to confine it and work ourselves gradually out of it.

HH: And one thought up by the geniuses of the Constitution using covert language. That’s what’s so brilliant about that. Let me get in one more before the break, more of Straithern as Lincoln, cut number five:

DS (as Lincoln) But where is the philosophy or statesmanship which assumes that you can quiet that disturbing element in our society which has disturbed us for more than half a century, which has been the only serious danger that has threatened our institutions-I say, where is the philosophy or the statesmanship based on the assumption that we are to quit talking about it, and that the public mind is all at once to cease being agitated by it? Yet this is the policy here in the north that Douglas is advocating-that we are to care nothing about it! I ask you if it is not a false philosophy? Is it not a false statesmanship that undertakes to build up a system of policy upon the basis of caring nothing about the very thing that everybody does care the most about? -a thing which all experience has shown we care a very great deal about?

HH: You know, Larry Arnn, I read that in the light of the Planned Parenthood atrocities that have been coming out, and in the background of the marriage debates. There are some things about which statesmen cannot oblige citizens to shut up and be quiet.

LA: Yeah, and these things are fundamental, and they’re not going to go away. And Lincoln’s point is slavery is fundamental, and you’re not going to be able to do what Douglas is proposing, which is make it simply a local issue, and there’s no reason for any outside party to care what’s done about it. And so that’s Lincoln, these passages are all like this. This is Lincoln, understand how ambitious is the thing he’s trying to do. It’s like a moral judgment, it’s like a voice of doom saying finally, this has got to be dealt with.

HH: And saying it with precision and with great eloquence and passion. A little more Lincoln when we return from the seventh Lincoln-Douglas debate.

— – – – –

DS (as Lincoln) On this subject of treating it as a wrong, and limiting its spread, let me say a word. Has anything ever threatened the existence of this Union save and except this very institution of Slavery? What is it that we hold most dear amongst us? Our own liberty and prosperity. What has ever threatened our liberty and prosperity save and except this institution of Slavery? If this is true, how do you propose to improve the condition of things by enlarging Slavery-by spreading it out and making it bigger? You may have a wen or cancer upon your person and not be able to cut it out lest you bleed to death; but surely it is no way to cure it, to engraft it and spread it over your whole body. That is no proper way of treating what you regard a wrong. You see this peaceful way of dealing with it as a wrong-restricting the spread of it, and not allowing it to go into new countries where it has not already existed. That is the peaceful way, the old-fashioned way, the way in which the fathers themselves set us the example.

HH: Welcome back, America, it’s Hugh Hewitt with Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College. That was David Straithern’s recreation of Abraham Lincoln in the seventh Lincoln-Douglas debate. All of those 21 hours, and by the way you’ll listen to them, and you will be captured by both the art of Straithern and Dreyfuss, but the eloquence of Lincoln and Douglas. And the passion of the time, you’ll listen to them transfixed. And Dr. Arnn, I don’t think anyone denies that.

LA: No, it’s, it really is a remarkable performance by both of them. And by now, you know, one should, I think one should have some sympathy for Stephen Douglas, because he was, he did die trying to keep the Union together. And according to his lights, he had a plan to do it. And Lincoln is putting very heavy pressure on him here. And that, you know, this idea that, so it’s amazing how emphatic Lincoln becomes. And it’s an art that’s so seldom practiced in politics. It’s hard to be adamant in principle, and flexible and moderate in practice. And so what the mind does, what politicians do all the time, not so much Barack Obama, by the way, but what they do is they fudge up the principles, because they don’t want to do the things that the principles demand them to do. And think of the distinction that Lincoln is making all the time. This is a cancer, and we have to stop it from spreading. And so endorse it is to endorse the thing that will kill us. And that’s as strong as one can possibly talk, except for the next quote, which is maybe the best quote Lincoln said in the whole Lincoln-Douglas debates.

HH: But you just set it up. I wanted to make sure we got it into this segment. This is a powerful bit of David Straithern as Abraham Lincoln, cut number 7:

DS (as Lincoln) That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles-right and wrong-throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

HH: Now Dr. Larry Arnn, if I could advise all of those sixteen Republicans to memorize one thing, I’d have them memorize this.

LA: Yeah, it’s perfect, see? And see, it shows, his response to Douglas’ point that we just have to consult our interest is that we have our ultimate interest in our principles. And if we accept this principle, then we are accepting the claims of King George III, and we are rebelling against the people who rebelled against him and his principle. And so finally, he’s saying, your own servitude is being written in what Douglas is proclaiming.

HH: When we come back from break, there is one last sword play, a bit of sword play, in which Douglas tries to turn that blade aside, and we will play that for you when we return.

— – – – –

HH: It is so appropriate that the last bit of excerpts that we take from the magnificent 21 hour recreation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates by David Straithern and Richard Dreyfuss, which are linked over at, that Dr. Larry Arnn and I have been using to prompt you to go and get them and listen to them, is from Richard Dreyfuss, because he got the last word at the debate, Larry Arnn. He got the first word and the last word in the seven debates, didn’t he?

LA: That, he did.

HH: And he uses it to try and parry the thrust the Lincoln delivered in the last segment about going back to the divine right of kings. Here’s Richard Dreyfuss with the last word, cut number nine:

RD (as Douglas): He says that any man who holds to the contrary doctrine is in the position of the king who claimed to govern by Divine right. Let us examine for a moment and see what principle it was that overthrew the Divine right of George the Third to govern us. Did not these colonies rebel because the British parliament had no right to pass laws concerning our property and domestic and private institutions without our consent? We demanded that the British Government should not pass such laws unless they gave us representation in the body passing them, -and this the British government insisting on doing,-we went to war, on the principle that the Home Government should not control and govern distant colonies without giving them a representation. Now, Mr. Lincoln proposes to govern the Territories without giving them a representation, and calls on Congress to pass laws controlling their property and domestic concerns without their consent and against their will. Thus, he asserts for his party the identical principle asserted by George III. and the Tories of the Revolution.

HH: And so, Larry, he’s trying hard to turn that thrust from Lincoln back on him. Why doesn’t it work?

LA: Well, it’s brilliant, and it’s sophistical, right, because you can’t make sense out of popular sovereignty, finally, for this reason. Whatever principle empowers people to govern themselves empowers all people. And so this language that government is, that Douglas is using, he says on the principle that the home government should not control and govern distant colonies, that language does not occur in the Declaration of Independence. What it says is no one may govern anyone except by his consent.

HH: Right.

LA: And so that means that the Parliament in Britain, if it is governing people without their consent, which by the way, it was in Britain, that’s wrong. And so it just, in order to accommodate the right of local people to keep property and other human beings, Douglas fashions this argument. And it is brilliant, and it’s also false. And what, one more thing, one bad thing about it is the Declaration of Independence is short. And the memorable passages in it come to about 500 words. And so people can remember that language. And Lincoln can quote it repeatedly, as he does throughout these debates and remind them what was actually said.

HH: So at the conclusion of this, Lincoln loses. So did he lose the debate to the people of Illinois about the choice they had to make? Or was the system rigged against him?

LA: Well, it’s just, it’s hard, you know, first of all, that’s very hard to answer. And so I’m relying on two things, you know, everything I know and my own reading is one thing, but then I took the trouble to go read Allen Guelzo this week, because I remember that book, and it’s really good. It’s pretty recent, too. But here’s what he thinks. He thinks, and you know, he’s looking, you know, he’s not just reading his own reading of it. He’s reading the Democratic press and the records we have of things that people who were important in the Democratic Party said about the debates. And in general, there’s the sense that Douglas is weakening, and that Lincoln hits him hard in these last two debates especially. And then you have to account for the fact that the Republicans gained significantly everywhere in the state except here in this Whig belt, where they came out about the same, a little better. You have to account for that, and Guelzo tells the story of the next two weeks’ campaign. And of course, you know, that John Crittenden thing was a very important thing. And Crittenden’s endorsement was very artful. And you know, he probably meant it, by the way. Douglas won huge points by opposing the Lecompton Constitution. And to say what that is quickly, Nebraska was settled quickly by forces that were sent in there to win it over to slavery. They made a rump congress or legislature, and they passed, they moved the state capital to the place where they were, and they passed a slave constitution. And it was obviously a put up job, and that made a crisis for Douglas, and it made the South, where he was trying to lay the ground for a presidential campaign, very angry that he opposed the Lecompton Constitution. And that threatened Lincoln bit, because it could have split the Republican Party and brought a lot of them over to Douglas. And in the Whig belt, it did do that. And Crittenden emphasized Douglas’ opposition to the Lecompton Constitution in his endorsement.

HH: And let’s spell out, Guelzo.

LA: Guelzo.

HH: Oh, well, I couldn’t have been worse. Guelzo.

LA: Guelzo.

HH: And what’s the name of the book?

LA: It’s called Lincoln and Douglas, and the subtitle has got Lincoln-Douglas Debates in it.

HH: Okay, I’ll link that along with the Straithern and Dreyfuss recordings, because that sounds like it’s sort of a popular account of a blow by blow, day by day. And Lincoln wanted to win, right? He didn’t want to run for the presidency in 1858.

LA: Lincoln, it took days. It was very close. And you know, they’re counting votes for the state senate, you know, and so that’s complicated. And it took days, but Lincoln knew in 24 hours that he had lost when the returns started coming in from the Whig belt. He understood very well how the election was going to go.

HH: Hold that thought. We’ll come back for the short segment with Dr. Larry Arnn and talk about how Lincoln reacted to losing after such an epic performance as we’ve been talking about for seven weeks and what happens next, something we’ll also be covering next week on the next Hillsdale Dialogue.

— – – – –

HH: So Lincoln knew he had lost within hours, Dr. Arnn, you were saying. How did he react both emotionally and philosophically to that defeat?

LA: Well, the obvious thing to say is he kept on. You know, by now, it’s the end of 1858, and his presidential campaign, such as it was, is going soon enough. He goes back east, he gives three or four, and I’m forgetting the number, but the most famous one is at the Cooper Union Address. And he makes these same arguments, and people are simply wowed by it. And the east was the Republican stronghold, and that was the land where Salmon Chase, a New Yorker, and Seward, from Ohio…

HH: Oh, you reversed that. Chase of Ohio, Seward of New York.

LA: Sorry, got it backwards, I know.

HH: We’ve got to give the Buckeyes their due.

LA: Sorry about that. But you know, it’s easy to forget. It’s Ohio. But so they were well-known, and Lincoln invaded their territory, and he just wowed them. One should read, if you get started reading Lincoln and you like it, then keep going, because you should read the Cooper Union address, and you should read the reactions to it, because there’s a lot of newspapers back there, and he’s not in the middle of a political campaign at this time. And there’s a lot of writing about how people reacted to that speech. It’s just awesome.

HH: We’re going to come back to that next week, and we’re going to talk about why the war came and how the Republican Party nominated Lincoln. There’s so many great accounts of that. But just in terms of his personal ambition, you said he kept on. But that’s a big blow to go all in like this and to wage a campaign like this, and then to be rebuffed by your home state, isn’t it?

LA: Well, yes and no, of course. You know, he would have rather won. But it’s also true that Stephen Douglas was the man, and he nearly beat him. It’s very close, right, and the Republicans were stronger when the race was over than when it began. If that hadn’t have happened, that was very important to Lincoln’s future prospects, because you know, they needed, Illinois is a big swing state. And so they needed somebody who could poll well in Illinois, and he did. So and you know, you could look at it, it’s not as bad a blow in one way, as the Dred Scott decision was a bad blow, because there, the Supreme Court is saying you can’t do the central element of your party platform. And Lincoln’s reaction to that was to explain how the work could go on and could ultimately be successful, and that’s what he did here.

HH: Keeping on. Dr. Larry Arnn, it is always a joy to talk to you. All of the Lincoln-Douglas Hillsdale Dialogues are linked at A course awaits that up there that I hope Dr. Arnn teaches in the wilds far north of Michigan. We’ll be back next week to talk Cooper Union. Don’t be anywhere but here, America, on next week’s Hillsdale Dialogue on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

End of interview.


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