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Dr. Larry Arnn On The First Lincoln-Douglas Debate In Ottawa, Illinois

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HH: It’s the last radio hour of the week. It is the favorite radio hour of the week for many of you. It’s the Hillsdale Dialogue in which some person, idea or work of the West is discussed and probed with my friend, Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College or one of his colleagues, or sometimes two or three of his colleagues. All of the Dialogues dating back now three years are available at, as are all of the online courses, including Constitution 101 which has reopened over at, and Imprimis, which will have a new commencement address in it coming your way. And Dr. Arnn and I decided last week that we would take the time to set up the Lincoln-Douglas debates by doing one of the seven debates a week. And you know, Larry, this week, they announced news about how they’re going to handle the debates at the Fox News Channel and CNN. I’m involved in the CNN debate. CNN is going to break them into Debate A and Debate B so that everyone is on the stage. Fox is going to just limit it to ten people. It was easier when there was just two people.

LA: Yeah, I have a lifelong ambition that we should now make a national call to your listeners to help us, and that is that one of these days, Hillsdale is going to host a debate, and there’s going to be a maximum of three, and they’re going to talk and argue with each other. And you and I can host it. We can be the host and we’ll make them argue and follow up each other’s points. But apart from that, we’ll let them talk, because you know, you never can tell, they might actually be talented.

HH: You know, it is remarkable that this is self-effecting. They governed themselves, Lincoln and Douglas did, at least in this first one. I’ve only read the first, I haven’t read these in 40 years, and I read the first one over the course of this week. And they run in the same sequence. The first speaker goes for an hour, the second speaker for 90 minutes, the third speaker for 30 minutes. Because Senator Douglas was the senior, he led off in four of the seven debates. Lincoln led off in the other three. And they’re remarkably organized. Now I assume they’re taking notes. I have no pictures, no account, but are they sitting there scribbling and taking notes as they go about?

LA: Well, we know what Lincoln took with him. Lincoln had a little book which was later published, by the way, although I have never seen it. And he, it was a bound, leather volume that was like a scrapbook with a brass hinge on it. And he stuck stuff in it that he kept with him. And some of it was newspaper accounts of Douglas speeches, some of it was newspaper accounts of his speeches, some of it was his notes on the past. One of the big things we’ll talk about, they argue about, is the past, about what was the attitude of slavery and what has been done about slavery in American history up to that point. And so Lincoln was prepared, and he worked at it hard. And he also wrote out fragments, many of which survive, of things that he said in the debates. And he didn’t read them, but he wrote them out, and he pretty much memorized them, and he would stick them in where they fit.

HH: And I want to add that the Chicago newspapers, and eventually the entire country, became fascinated by these two titans of the stage. So they would send stenographers. And not unlike the Federalist Papers, a lot was expected of our public then. And they would record every word, and interruptions from the crowd, which was generally civilized. Judge Douglas asked early on not for boos, but for attention. But I want to start at an interesting place, because I find it so revealing. In the first hour, in the very first meeting, Stephen Douglas, Senator Douglas, Judge Douglas, as he’s referred to, says in the remarks that I have made on this platform, and the position of Mr. Lincoln upon it, I mean nothing personally disrespectful or unkind to that gentleman. I have known him for nearly 25 years. There are many points of sympathy between us. When we first got acquainted, we were both comparatively boys and both struggling with poverty in a strange land. I was a schoolteacher in the town of Winchester. He was a flourishing grocery keeper in the town of Salem. He was more successful in his occupation than I was in mine, and hence, fortunate in the world’s good. Lincoln is one of those peculiar men who perform with admirable skill everything at which they undertake. I made as good a schoolteacher as I could, and when a cabinet maker, I made a good bedstead and tables, although my boss said I could succeed better with bureaus and secretaries than with anything else. But I believe that Lincoln was always more successful in business than I, for his business enabled him to get into the legislature. Now what’s interesting about that, Larry Arnn, is that Lincoln takes the stage and said he made it all up.

LA: Yeah, that’s right. (laughing)

HH: (laughing)

LA: Isn’t that great? It was fought tooth and nail, and it, it’s a mixture of direct confrontation and you know, they don’t call each other liars ever.

HH: Close. Close.

LA: In fact, they exclude that charge.

HH: Yup.

LA: But gosh, they, it’s direct confrontation meant to expose dishonesty without calling it that, but also couched in long, complex arguments.

HH: Long, complex arguments, and what do you, what advantage do you think that Douglas attempted to gain by calling himself the less advantaged man in his early life?

LA: Oh, well, that was, you know, this is a democracy, right?

HH: Right.

LA: This is, you know, one of Lincoln’s favorite sayings was God must have loved the common people. He made so many of them.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) So, and see, Douglas, one thing people have to get a sense of is Douglas was stylish. Douglas was well-dressed, he was a crafted orator, he was direct and confrontational, and he was a big wheel, right? And so he understood that that was to his disadvantage. And so he was, they were in a wrestling match to see who could be lower.

HH: And in fact, Lincoln, I’m moving ahead here into Lincoln’s response, and this is a fairly long bit, but I’ve got to read it, because it struck me so. Judge Douglas is a man of vast influence, so great that it is said for many men to profess to believe anything when they once find out what Judge Douglas professes to believe it. Consider also the attitude he occupies at the head of a large party, a party which he claims is a majority of all the voters in the country. This man sticks to a decision at which forbids the people of a territory from excluding slavery, and he does so not because he says that it is right in himself. He does not give any opinion on that, but because it has been decided by the court. And being decided the court, he is, and you are bound to take it in your political action as law, not that he judges it all of the merits, but because a decision of the court is to him thus sayeth the Lord. He places it on that ground alone. You will hear him bear it in mind, thus committing himself unreservedly to this decision, commits him to the next one just as firmly to this. He did not commit himself on account of the merit or demerit of the decision. But it is a thus, sayeth the Lord. The next decision, as much as this, will be of thus, sayeth the Lord. There is nothing that can divert him or turn him away from this decision. That is A) it’s damning in a lot of ways, but B) it makes him an exalted servant of Justice Taney.

LA: Yeah, see, and Lincoln, so there are several arts by which Lincoln did. And you know, I claimed last time that Lincoln won the popular vote, and let me explain what I mean by that. Neither Lincoln nor Douglas was on the ballot, but every state, a Republican up for statewide office won, got a majority over the Democrat. In addition, the Republicans got many more votes for the state legislative races in total, and more than they had ever got in the race. It’s just that the votes were distributed in a way so that the Democrats captured the Senate, the state senate, and Douglas was returned. And they needed, and the Republicans at the end of this election stood higher in Illinois than they ever had, and they had more popular votes than the Democrats. But they didn’t quite take the Senate. And so that’s why Lincoln was beaten.

HH: And that was good for us.

LA: So now, but one of the things is, see, people should understand what this great controversy is about, and it is historic, as you said. It is, actually, probably the first long political speeches ever transcribed as a whole. And the papers, by the way, achieved fairness better than we do. But they did it by being strictly partisan. So the newspaper accounts, which are transcriptions, newspapers published the whole thing, both Republican and Democratic papers, but they inserted, they changed quite a bit, so we don’t actually have a pure text.

HH: (laughing)

LA: But there’s lots of, like the Democrat paper says in its notes, you know, because they have parenthesis with the crowd reaction. And they said that, and one of the Democratic papers claims that Lincoln was so distraught at one of Douglas’ arguments that he was dragged off the stage by Republican sympathizers. And there’s no record of that happening. And then they both, the Democrats and the Republicans, both report joyous exaltation by the supporters of the one or the other, because it was so clear that the one or the other had won the debate. So it’s a very big deal, and it’s a partisan deal, and if you want the truth, you’ve got to read both papers.

HH: And that’s what Kyle, the always estimable Kyle Murnen has done, is he’s gone and he’s found the collected works, which I believe took the Republican accounts of the Republican speeches, and the Democratic accounts of the Democratic speeches, and therefore kind of got to the core of what both men were saying.

LA: Yeah, and they’re, that’s right, and they’re not, by the way, they’re not that different. There’s, you know, there’s an argument among historians about whether Lincoln was more eloquent than Douglas, and that always strikes me as an argument about who flies better – pigs or eagles.

HH: I’ll be right back.

— – – –

HH: And in this first debate, so much groundwork is laid, and I haven’t read ahead, and so I’m just going to let it unfold for me. But I was struck, Larry Arnn, by how much each man has to construct a history.

LA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: Justice Douglas constructs a history of the conspiratorial nature of the Lincoln bid, and how he set out to abolitionize the Whig party, and to abolitionize the Democratic Party. And then Lincoln sets out to form, and gets under Douglas’ skin dramatically, by laying out a conspiracy theory of the slave interests. And they both have to rely on constructing a narrative in order to make their arguments persuasive.

LA: Yeah, and see, that’s what’s profound about this, and by the way, that’s what’s instructive for us today, the political debate today, because here’s what’s at stake. What’s at stake is what do the principles and institutions of America require? Do they require freedom? Or do they permit slavery? And so at the bottom, the argument is about that. But you need history, because history involves an argument from authority. And so they have to tell what the founders thought about that. And both of them, by the way, build their fundamental claim that they’re only doing what the founders did.

HH: Yeah, and they referred to Washington, Madison, Hamilton again and again.

LA: That’s right, and both of them, see, and that’s a great thing, see, and it’s the Civil War, like the Revolutionary War, turns on the question what is a human being and what are his rights? And so it’s very complicated, because Lincoln says I only want to leave things where they were. And where they were is that we have slavery among us and we don’t know what to do, but we condemn it and we’re not going to let it grow, so that it is placed on the course of ultimate extinction. Douglas replies look, you say a house divided against itself cannot stand, but this house is 80 years old, and it’s been divided against itself, and you are rebelling from Washington and Jefferson and all of them, because they built this house divided that you are trying to tear down. And that’s the argument, see?

HH: And there’s also, I’m looking for it, I love that part where Lincoln comes back to that and say does Judge Douglas wish to quarrel with the speaker of the statement that a house divided itself cannot fall.

LA: Yeah, isn’t that good, yeah.

HH: Jesus.

LA: Jesus (laughing)

HH: (laughing) I mean, they’re brilliant. They’re brilliant men. They’re both lawyers, and I know your esteem for lawyers is high, but you can see when Douglas opens up, he puts into evidence certain resolutions of the Illinois Republican Party, and then he says I desire to know whether Mr. Lincoln today stands as he did in 1854 and favor the unconstitutional repeal of the Fugitive Law. I desire him to answer whether he stands pledged today as he did in 1854 against the admission of any more slave states into the Union. I want to know whether he stands pledged against the admission of a new state into the Union with such a constitution as the people of this state may have received fit to make. I desire him to answer whether he stands pledged to the prohibition of the slave trade between the different states. I desire to know all that he stands pledged to prohibit, slavery in all the territories. I want his answer to these questions. He tries to box him in, and Lincoln, quite…this is a great study in rhetoric, he simply dismisses this attempt to charge, you know, make this a deposition.

LA: He says I’m not going to be catechized by you.

HH: Yes.

LA: …unless you agree to be catechized by me. But here, do you notice, in the first debate, he only answers one of the questions.

HH: Which one? Which one?

LA: He answers the question, the first question, that is are you in favor of a fugitive slave law.

HH: Oh, yes. He says he is.

LA: And see, that is the only one to which Lincoln would give the answer. No, in other words, all the others, there’s seven, right? And Lincoln’s position on all seven is that no more states admitted, slave states, no more territory except with the guarantee that no slavery in it, and by the way, Lincoln has opposed the Mexican War, and that was very inconvenient, see? Douglas charges him with this.

HH: Oh, he slays, he flays him with it, yeah.

LA: He says you didn’t, you wouldn’t support our soldiers in the Mexican War, and Lincoln said when the question was put to me in a vote in the House of Representatives, has the president been honest in contriving this war, I have answered that question no. But just like you, every vote of supply for the troops, I have voted for.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So it’s just like today, see? I supported the troops, but not the war.

HH: I’ve got to read that passage. You remember I was an old Whig, and whenever the Democratic Party tried to get me to vote for that war that had been righteously begun by the president, I would not do it. But whenever they asked for any of the money or land warrants or anything to pay the soldiers there during all that time, I gave the same vote that Judge Douglas did. You can think as you please as to whether that was consistent. Such is the truth, and the Judge has the right to make all he can out of it. But when he by a general charge conveys the idea that I withheld supplies from the soldiers who were fighting in the Mexican War, or did anything else to hinder the soldiers, is to say the least, grossly and altogether mistaken as a consultation of the records will prove him. He scored there, I think.

LA: That’s right, he did. Yeah, and see, remember, that’s dangerous for two reasons. It’s a patriotic country in the sense that people want the troops supported, just like now. In addition, everybody wanted the country to grow. And so that question of Douglas’, are you in favor of growth except on condition no slavery, and see, one of the political points that’s going on here is that Douglas is for manifest destiny. He wants us to control all of the Western Hemisphere. But in addition, he’s for the Northern route for the national railroad, and that would be really good for Illinois.

HH: Right.

LA: And so he’s got Lincoln in a box, and Lincoln won’t answer that question, you see, but the one about the Fugitive Slave Cause, he does answer, because people are saying, and see, that’s the point you’ve got to understand about Lincoln, that what the Republican Party achieved, and I’m proud to say that people at Hillsdale College helped to contrive this idea, was that they restored the Constitution to its original place, as they claimed, and I think rightly claimed. The founders wouldn’t mention slavery in the Constitution. James Madison says that’s because they don’t to endorse it. And so it was in their mind to be placed on the course of ultimate extinction. And so on the other hand, the Constitution does forbid the federal government from messing with slavery in South Carolina. So the Republicans said we won’t do that. We’re going to respect the Constitution in all its terms, so that means including the Fugitive Slave Clause. And so Lincoln proclaims that, because, and answers that question and only that one. And the others, which where Douglas is trying to say you’re for the black man, you’re going to make him equal, there are going to be blacks all over Illinois, and by the way, it was illegal to bring a black into Illinois at this time.

HH: We’ll come right back, because there are many high points as well as low gut punches in these debates, and we’re in the first of them. Lincoln-Douglas. Don’t go anywhere, America.

— – – – —

HH: This is the first debate at Ottawa on August 21st. There were originally nine counties in Illinois, but they’d already met in two different counties separately, so they limited it to seven debates. Larry Arnn, a few things I want to ask you about. At one point, Lincoln lays down this argument. The law which forbids the bringing of slaves from Africa, and that which has been so long forbid the taking them to Nebraska, can hardly be distinguished on any moral principle. And the repeal of the former can find quite as plausible excuse as that of the latter. Is he there making the argument that Stephen Douglas is undoing the Great Compromise, and that if he undoes it, he’s going to undo it everywhere, including to the reintroduction of the slave trade?

LA: Well, that’s right, and see, the heart of Lincoln’s position, you know, because by the way, the historical narrative is the way we get at the meaning of a principle proclaimed in the past, right? Because it wasn’t just some philosophers sitting around having a dialogue, right? It’s not Plato’s Republic. It’s a republic built with laws and events and speeches talking and explaining the events, right? So the principle is available in human events and human words. That’s why they have to argue. But at the heart of it is the principle, and Lincoln’s point is simple. If it’s true that slavery is an indifferent institution, then that means, by the way, that who we enslave is just a question of our self-interest.

HH: Right

LA: And that reduces all government not to justice, but to self-interest.

HH: Right, and then he gets…

LA: So that’s why he’s got to, and see, by the way, that’s just Thomas Jefferson talking, right?

HH: Right.

LA: That’s just George Washington, because all of the founders, by the way, any leading founder you can find, in the Dred Scott decision, Roger Taney, and in these Lincoln-Douglas debates, Stephen Douglas makes a simple travesty of what those guys said about slavery, because you can’t find anybody saying what those guys said they said.

HH: That’s, in fact, Lincoln says now I believe if we could arrest the spread and place it where Washington and Jefferson and Madison placed it, it would be on the course of the ultimate extinction, and the public would, as for 80 years past, believe that it was on the course of ultimate extinction. You’ve made this point on these dialogues before that Calhoun erased this. It was the second generation of early Americans who blotted out or spilt the ink over everything that had been written before it. And Douglas is going with the ink blotter, right? He wants it all forgotten.

LA: Well, Douglas, by the way, is not, Douglas is not like John Calhoun. What Douglas wants, Douglas is very much for the greatness of the country, and not just slavery at any cost, right? He wants to put the issue on the side. And one of the ways he proves that is that he is actually the first man to campaign for the presidency of the United States. And he campaigned almost exclusively in the South. And then when the secession deliberations were going on in the South, he made another tour to persuade them to stay in the Union despite the election of Lincoln. And so Douglas was not a guy who thought that it would utterly corrupt the Union if there were any black people permitted to be citizens in it. He didn’t think that. What he thought was we can’t be worrying about this issue. We can grow, and we can have a democratic process, and all of us white ones that are included can have a tremendous thing, and people who don’t want slavery can make places for themselves where they don’t have it.

HH: You know, what’s very appealing about him is he’s arguing from power as well. He’s saying I won. I won in Dred Scott. Lincoln says I understand the Dred Scott decision. If any one man wants slaves, all the rest have no way of keeping that one man from holding them. And he goes on to join Taney and Douglas at the hip. He won’t…and Pierce. You know, they’re all together. They’re a conspiracy, and to a certain extent, I think Judge Douglas is okay with that. He wants the issue settled like our court so often tries to settle things.

LA: No, no, see, see, so first of all, you should read ahead. But I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. So in Freeport, see, Dred Scott is inconvenient for Lincoln, obviously, because one of the things it says is that states don’t have power to recognize black people as citizens of the Union. But it also messes up Douglas, because Douglas wants each territory to decide about slavery for itself. And so Lincoln, at Freeport, asks the famous Socratic question that helped to break Stephen Douglas. He says do you think after the Dred Scott decision, which you will not resist, that a territory has the power to resolve to eliminate slavery, you see, and that really causes Douglas a problem, and he thinks of an artful answer that we will cover.

HH: Okay, when we come back. Don’t go anywhere, America. We’re not going to cover it today. I’m going to insist that we learn as the people of Illinois learned, in order.

— – – —

HH: I’m actually enamored of the approach that we’ve fallen in with Dr. Larry Arnn of reading the Lincoln-Douglas debates one at a time in sequence, because in so many ways, that’s how we live political life today, Larry Arnn, that it’s the sequence in which they happened. And I want to see what comes around in Debate number two in which they furrowed their brow and worried over. And I think it’s, you tell me a little bit, you’re kind of the guy who’s seen the movie already. The conspiracy argument that Lincoln levels at Douglas, we see a lot of framed timbers, different proportions of which we know have gotten out at different times and places, and by different workmen. Stephen, Franklin, Roger and James, for instance, and we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly make the frame of a house or a mill, all the tenons and mortars exactly fitting, all the lengths and proportions of different pieces. He’s implying, and he goes on at great length, he’s implying they’ve had this schemed up for a long time. That really gets under Douglas’ skin.

LA: It does, and see, remember that both of them, right, because you have to remember who they’re talking to, right? This is, you know, it’s in my lifetime and yours, Hugh, that a black man could marry a white woman without public scandal, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: So when I was born, you were born, that wasn’t the way things were, right?

HH: Correct. Loving V. Virginia, ’67, yeah.

LA: So what’s it like in 1858, right? People, you know, there’s no experience in America or anywhere else of a free people living with people of different color as equal citizens. And that’s hard…

HH: Although you know, Justice Kennedy argued from the bench not long ago that in the British Empire was not a thing remarkable for a Brit to marry a local who was of color.

LA: That might be true, but remember, that’s not self-governing society, right?

HH: Okay, you’re right, and it’s also not America.

LA: Yeah. And so they’re not, so the point is nobody’s for that. Lincoln will get to it hence that he is for that. But if he had proclaimed any of that, that would have been it, right? And Douglas is trying to make him claim that, you see, painting him with that. Now on the other hand, what Lincoln is showing underneath it all, among other things, is that if Douglas gets his way, slavery’s going to go everywhere, and as he likes to say candidly and openly, then the Western lands are not going to be the property of free, white people. They’re going to be competing with the plantations. And so that’s the, you know, underneath it all, because remember, what’s at the bottom of this is a people struggling with something, because you know how life works, right? You commit yourself to a principle, and then it owns you. And so we named this principle that slavery is among us. And the people who named it, they knew it meant that these slaves have the same rights we do.

HH: Yeah.

LA: The color of your skin doesn’t make a difference, right? They know that. And so now we have to face that fact. And the process of facing it is a long process that continues to this day. And there’s an argument today that there’s as much racism now as there was then, because what is the bureaucracy except an engine to make us sort and count everybody by color, and so you see, they’re trying, and Lincoln, he’s got to win a popular election, which he did win, by the way. And he’s got to win it on the language. He says, you know, we haven’t talked about the really beautiful passages in Lincoln, and by the way, the beautiful passages in Lincoln have no parallel in Douglas.

HH: Oh, you’re right.

LA: Douglas is not inspirational, right?

HH: Let me give you one at the end. To my thinking, Judge Douglas is, by his example and vast influence, doing that very thing in this community when he says that the Negro has nothing in the Declaration of Independence. Henry Clay plainly understood the contrary. Judge Douglas is going back to the era of our revolution to the extent of his ability, muzzling the cannon which thunders its annual joyous return. When he invites any people willing to have slavery to establish it, he is blowing out the moral lights around us. When he says he cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up, that is a sacred right of self-government. He is, in my judgment, penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in the American people. Wow, damnation.

LA: Yeah, see, you know, Lincoln’s argument, by the way, Lincoln is capable of a logical poetry that is also very beautiful, right? It’s amazing. I don’t know anybody else who writes like him. But he, and speaks like him, but here’s what he says. He says I may think that the black man is my inferior, but do I think he’s my inferior in this, that he has the same right I have to eat the bread that he earns with the sweat of his own face?

HH: Yeah.

LA: Or do I get to eat it? You know, another place, he says Douglas says the black woman is not his equal. Why does that mean he gets to own her? Why doesn’t he just let her alone? You see, so that thing, and you know, as I, and the ultimate point of the logic is this. As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. To me, that is the meaning of democracy. Whatever differs from this to the extent of the different is no democracy. So he’s saying to those, and you know, and Ottawa is a town of 7,000. And the least estimate of the number of people at this debate was 17,000. And the greatest is 27,000, right?

HH: Wow.

LA: So he’s saying to all these people with their prejudices and all that, that this principle that they hold that makes them what they are, Americans, this principle he says, he calls the electric cord in the Chicago speech, by the way, you rightly said there are nine counties, but there are seven debates. Well, the first two, the reason there are any debates at all is Douglas would hold a big rally, and Lincoln would show up in the same place and give a speech right after him, and steal is crowd, and call him a coward for not debating him. And in Chicago, Lincoln said, you know, how do we become blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the fathers who founded our country, these iron men who did this great thing? And the answer is we notice the principle that all men are created equal. So Lincoln is telling those 17 or 27 thousand people you want the benefit of this simple justice that you understand, because you have a human soul, so you must pay the price, too. You must let everybody have it.

HH: At the end of this, by the way, I want people to know as they set up for the second, Douglas is angry. I don’t know if I’m right in inferring this, but his vanity is wounded. He says about Lincoln, and I will repel a charge of conspiracy. I have not brought a charge of moral turpitude against him. I just, do you agree with me he’s angry, Larry Arnn?

LA: Oh, yeah. But he’s a blusterer, too, right? He’s a bombast, and he’s, you know, he’s very good.

HH: And we’ll get to round two next week. Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, a great project.

End of interview.


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