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Dr. Larry Arnn On The Third Lincoln-Douglas Debate At Jonesboro

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HH: The last radio hour of the week is here. That means the Hillsdale Dialogue with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, sometimes with one of his colleagues from the faculty of Hillsdale, which you can read about all of those colleagues at, sometimes alone as is today as we are in the middle of a series on the Lincoln-Douglas debates. And Dr. Arnn, since I last saw you, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been surging towards a national championship, and so I think this is good for Cleveland that we talk. And since I last saw you, I met Attorney General Tim Fox of Montana, who’s had the foresight to hire a Hillsdale man as his coms director. So you are stretching out the network even to the Bighorns.

LA: Yeah, you know, it’s getting to the place now where if you hear a politician and he sounds intelligent, you may know why.

HH: Hey, I’m going to be in town on Meet The Press on Sunday, and it’s going to be the day after a speech by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I’m not really expecting a Lincoln-Douglas style argument, are you?

LA: Well, you know, we’ve come so far since those days that surely, it must be much better than that. Wouldn’t it just be a major development and improvement on Lincoln and Douglas?

HH: In one time, but I was struck by that, because it won’t, all the expectations are very low. She’ll touch the right buttons, and she’ll say the right things about FDR, and it will be packaged. It will have been written down for her, and it will be on a teleprompter. And these men, we’re talking about the Jonesboro debate today, which occurred before 1,500 people over two hours, and the southern part of the state, mostly people who had come from slave-owning states, so it was an anti-Lincoln forum. But they spoke with notes but without a script.

LA: Yeah, and see, what we miss in America is a real argument. And so we do get debates, but it’s, you know, you’re helping with them, and I’m hoping you’ll make them better if they can be made better. But they only, to when they confront each other, they only get little snippets, and they don’t really get to confront each other, whereas these goes go on three hours at a time, seven times, plus two where they sort of half did it, and hours and hours, and they develop a large account of the whole question of slavery and the meaning of the Union. And these politicians, we don’t really know for sure today whether they’re even capable of thinking questions like that through, because they never get to say them.

HH: Now we have, because of one of your listeners, one of your students, a unique reminder that we can let the audience hear what this was like because of recordings made by actors David Straithern and Richard Dreyfuss, Straithern playing Lincoln, Dreyfuss playing Douglas, of all of the debates. And we went for this week, the third debate, because right now, you’re in the middle rounds, right? They’ve thrown their few punches, they’ve felt each other out, and they’re now ready to go. And as I read this, I said Douglas is good when he opens this. And I asked Duane, and Duane went off and found the book that is the Straithern and Dreyfuss recordings, and I want to play the opening, it’s three minutes and 14 seconds long of Judge Douglas at the third debate in Jonesboro, and you can hear how coherent his argument is what Lincoln is up against. So enjoy this with us, America, with Dr. Larry Arnn, let’s play cut number one:

RD (as Douglas): Prior to 1854 this country was divided into two great political parties known as Whig and Democratic. These parties differed from each other on certain questions which were then deemed to be important to the best interests of the Republic. Whig and Democrats differed about a bank, the tariff, distribution, the specie circular and the sub-treasury. On those issues we went before the country and discussed the principles, objects and measures of the two great parties. Each of the parties could proclaim its principles in Louisiana as well as in Massachusetts, in Kentucky as well as in Illinois. Since that period, a great revolution has taken place in the formation of parties, by which they now seem to be divided by a geographical line, a large party in the North being arrayed under the Abolition or Republican banner, in hostility to the Southern States, Southern people, and Southern institutions. It becomes important for us to inquire how this transformation of parties has occurred, made from those of national principles to geographical factions. You remember that in 1850-this country was agitated from its center to its circumference about this slavery question-it became necessary for the leaders of the great Whig party and the leaders of the great Democratic party to postpone, for the time being, their particular disputes, and unite first to save the Union before they should quarrel as to the mode in which it was to be governed. During the Congress of 1849-50, Henry Clay was the leader of the Union men, supported by Cass and Webster, and the leaders of the Democracy and the leaders of the Whigs, in opposition to Northern Abolitionists or Southern Disunionists. That great contest of 1850 resulted in the establishment of the Compromise Measures of that year, which measures rested on the great principle that the people of each State and each Territory of this Union ought to be permitted to regulate their own domestic institutions in their own way, subject to no other limitation than that which the Federal Constitution imposes. I now wish to ask you whether that principle was right or wrong which guaranteed to every State and every community the right to form and regulate their domestic institutions to suit themselves. These measures were adopted, as I have previously said, by the joint action of the Union Whigs and Union Democrats in opposition to Northern Abolitionists and Southern Disunionists.

HH: Now Dr. Larry Arnn, we could spend the whole show on how elegant an opening that is, but what are your observations on hearing that as opposed to what we normally hear from politicians today?

LA: Well, it’s first of all, there’s a coherent, it actually is partly true and partly false, narrative history of the slavery question in the Union. And to both candidates, it matters very much what the original principles and the subsequent history of the American Republic say on this question. And they both give an account of it, and they both give a coherent account of it, and they both agree that whoever is right is the one who’s got that right.

HH: That’s exactly why this is such a great debate. They agree that if our argument from history is right, I am right.

LA: Right, and see, it’s so well put, and you know, I think it’s half true and half false, but, and we can talk about that, but another thing that’s going on is a political thing, and that is because everybody who’s listening agrees that the country is great and has had a great history, and its founding is great. Everybody agrees about that. Not true today, by the way. Then what you have to do to win is to show that your opponent is rebelling against that, is altering that, is making a fundamental change. And so Douglas’ charge, which becomes explicit soon in the debate, but here, it’s implicit, is that Lincoln has given up on the nation, he’s adopted a purely sectional view, and he’s dividing the country by breaking up its original consensus.

HH: Well, let’s get to that. Cut number two:

RD (as Douglas): All sectional men, all men of Abolition sentiments and principles, no matter whether they were old Abolitionists or had been Whigs or Democrats, rally under the sectional Republican banner, and consequently all national men, all Union-loving men, whether Whigs, Democrats, or by whatever name they have been known, ought to rally under the stars and stripes in defense of the Constitution as our fathers made it, and of the Union as it has existed under the Constitution. How has this departure from the faith of the Democracy and the faith of the Whig party been accomplished?

HH: Stop right there, because we’ve got a minute and a quarter, Larry Arnn, and we’ll come back to it, what, boy, it’s a straw man setup, isn’t it? You really don’t want to be Abraham Lincoln at this point.

LA: That’s right. He’s tearing down our country by breaking the foundation of it. And that, by the way, is also Lincoln’s charge against Douglas. And it’s perfect.

HH: It’s perfect. And when we come back from break, we’re going to play some more. This is a great debate. Did you have fun rereading this?

LA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, and see, this is, it’s worth commenting, and just before the break, that this is the first one down in what they refer to as Egypt. And that’s the southern part of Illinois, and it’s down by the river, and there’s a delta down there that’s shaped like around Alexandria where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean. And another thing to know is they kept using the word “the democracy,” and that means the Democratic Party.

HH: The democracy – I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – — –

HH: When someone told him about the Lincoln-Douglas debates recorded by David Straithern and Richard Dreyfuss, you know, I thought maybe they’d be okay. They’re terrific.

LA: Yeah, that somebody was my student, Ryan Walsh, by the way, who’s a famous man by now. I’m getting old, and he’s getting mature. He’s been a clerk on the Supreme Court, and he listens to these, and he sent me an email and said you’ve got to listen to these things I found.

HH: They’re amazing.

LA: And they really are awesome, aren’t they?

HH: Yeah, but I’ve got to respect the fair use doctrine, so I can only use little clips of them. But I tried to pick the ones from Douglas. I don’t want, I want Douglas to be defeated honestly and on an open field as opposed to two Lincoln men trashing him later, and we haven’t been doing that. You’ve been very fair to his, I think you said in the first time we talked, you have to take Douglas very seriously.

LA: Oh, yes.

HH: Why?

LA: Well, because first of all, because of the quality that you’re talking about, and second of all, because according to his lights, Douglas was a patriotic man, and he proved that later more by trying to keep the Union together when the secession crisis came. And I think it is his posture here that he wants to prevent that crisis from arising, and he wants it to be a great nation that can grow. He mentions Cuba in this debate for the first time.

HH: We’re going to play that. It’s so great. All of a sudden, I’m talking about taking Cuba. I said hey, I like this guy. Here’s the next part of the cut of Judge Douglas at the third Lincoln-Douglas debate.

RD (as Douglas): How has this departure from the faith of the Democracy and the faith of the Whig party been accomplished? In 1854, certain restless, ambitious, and disappointed politicians throughout the land took advantage of the temporary excitement created by the Nebraska bill to try and dissolve the old Whig party and the old Democratic party, to abolitionize their members, and lead them, bound hand and foot, captives into the Abolition camp. In the State of New York a Convention was held by some of these men and a platform adopted, every plank of which was as black as night, each one relating to the negro, and not one referring to the interests of the white man. That example was followed throughout the Northern States, the effect being made to combine all the free States in hostile array against the slave States. The men who thus thought that they could build up a great sectional party, and through its organization control the political destinies of this country, based all their hopes on the single fact that the North was the stronger division of the nation, and hence, if the North could be combined against the South, a sure victory awaited their efforts. I am doing no more than justice to the truth of history when I say that in this State Abraham Lincoln, on behalf of the Whigs, and Lyman Trumbull, on behalf of the Democrats, were the leaders who undertook to perform this grand scheme of abolitionizing the two parties to which they belonged.

HH: Now stop right there. This is powerful hammer throwing, Larry Arnn, a restless, ambitious and disappointed men scheming to destroy the country. Lincoln is sitting, what, four feet from him?

LA: Yeah, that’s right. And Lincoln gets tough in this one, too, but you see, this great blessing of America, Lincoln is abolitionizing it. And now we get a picture of what Douglas is proposing. What Douglas thinks the national consensus is, is that the nation is built on a white basis, and that the Negro, or as he sometimes says the other N word, that what we do with him depends on what we want to do with him. And we can decide that place by place. And that’s the national consensus, that’s part of the national consensus. And on the white basis, everyone who’s white is free and equal. And we can make a hemispheric-wide great, powerful union on that basis as long as we don’t fight about slavery. And so, and this was what the founders did, he says.

HH: Oh, in fact, I have that clip. Cut number three:

RD (as Douglas): There you have Mr. Lincoln’s first and main proposition, upon which he bases his claims, stated in his own language. He tells you that this Republic cannot endure permanently divided into slave and free States, as our fathers made it. He says that they must all become free or all become slave, that they must all be one thing or all be the other, or this Government cannot last. Why can it not last, if we will execute the Government in the same spirit and upon the same principles upon which it is founded?

HH: That is a powerful argument, Larry Arnn.

LA: That’s right.

HH: You know, he’s going right at the throat here.

LA: And remember that what he’s not doing is quoting these founders…

HH: Yup.

LA: …on this question, right? So he’s talking about what they did, which was, by the way, not to eliminate slavery uniformly, although by the way, they abolished it quickly in much more than half the Union. And there must have been some reason why they did that. And they said what the reason was, and you just can’t find one of the leading founders saying that the Declaration of Independence does not include people of all colors. They all say that it does. And so he doesn’t quote them. He just talks about the effect of the Revolution. And then Lincoln has to answer that, see, and you know, things have changed a lot, by the way, what the factors that produced this crisis are a widespread, but not, it proved, a majority, change in opinion about what the country means, because new ideas grew up that led to the proclamation of slavery as a positive good. You don’t get that.

HH: But he tries to step around that. I want to jump to cut six if we could, Duane, because Judge Douglas anticipates Dr. Arnn’s objection and says this.

RD (as Douglas): The Dred Scott decision covers the whole question, and declares that each State has the right to settle this question of suffrage for itself.

HH: And he jumps to cut number eight:

RD (as Douglas): If we live upon the principle of State rights and State sovereignty, each State regulating its own affairs and minding its own business, we can go on and extend indefinitely, just as fast and as far as we need the territory. The time may come, indeed has now come, when our interests would be advanced by the acquisition of the Island of Cuba. (Terrific applause.) When we get Cuba we must take it as we find it, leaving the people to decide the question of slavery for themselves, without interference on the part of the Federal Government, or of any State of this Union. So, when it becomes necessary to acquire any portion of Mexico or Canada, or of this continent or the adjoining islands, we must take them as we find them, leaving the people free to do as they please-to have slavery or not, as they choose.

HH: We’ll be right back on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

— – – – –

HH: In that last bit that we closed the last segment with, Dr. Larry Arnn, all these Hillsdale Dialogues are available at, and everything at Hillsdale is available at Douglas is saying we take what we want, and we let the people who live there, the white people who live there, decide what to do with it. And he’s appealing to the manifest destiny impulse.

LA: That’s right, and of course, there’s, you know, plenty of contradictions in this, right, because does he follow the logic all the way so that in a state, in Cuba, if they want to, they could enslave white people if they decided they wanted to do that? In other words, he, there are important gaps in his argument which Lincoln is extremely skillful in exploiting. And you know, but he is also appealing to prejudices and opinions in the people that are very inconvenient for Lincoln.

HH: Oh, yes.

LA: And so in the next debate, Lincoln is going to say both the most damaging things to his enduring reputation that he says in the whole debates, in the fourth debate, and one of the most beautiful things he said, most repairing of his reputation. But that’s because Douglas has Lincoln under pressure just as Lincoln has Douglas under pressure.

HH: And since I wanted this hour to be as fair to Douglas as possible, I’m going to do two more cuts from him before turning to one cut from Lincoln. This is cut, back to where Douglas talks about what Mr. Lincoln is trying to destroy, the government as it currently exists, cut number four:

RD (as Douglas): During that period we have increased from four millions to thirty millions of people; we have extended our territory from the Mississippi to the Pacific ocean; we have acquired the Floridas and Texas, and other territory sufficient to double our geographical extent; we have increased in population, in wealth, and in power beyond any example on earth; we have risen from a weak and feeble power to become the terror and admiration of the civilized world; and all this has been done under a Constitution which Mr. Lincoln, in substance, says is in violation of the law of God, and under a Union divided into free and slave States, which Mr. Lincoln thinks, because of such division, cannot stand. Surely, Mr. Lincoln is a wiser man than those who framed the Government. Washington did not believe, nor did his compatriots, that the local laws and domestic institutions that were well adapted to the Green Mountains of Vermont were suited to the rice plantations of South Carolina; they did not believe at that day that in a Republic so broad and expanded as this, containing such a variety of climate, soil, and interest, that uniformity in the local laws and domestic institutions was either desirable or possible.

HH: That’s a thunderbolt, Dr. Arnn.

LA: Very good.

HH: He pulled up Washington.

LA: So I have to say this, because it’s one of the most important things that Lincoln says, so I have to put in a Lincoln here. Douglas is making an argument about nature. The nature of places means that the arrangements in those places – soil, climate, weather, climate, all that, means the different institutions, and Lincoln responds to that later. He says just because we recognize that the nature of the man does not make his rights depend upon his skin color, so we recognize that we’re not going to grow pine trees in Kansas the way we grow them in Maine. Each thing according to its nature, and the nature of man is such a thing that each one has its rights. This is one of the most profound parts of the argument, and Douglas’ part is just because the topography and the climate and the foliage and the fauna of regions is different, so the way we treat human beings must be different.

HH: And what’s the essence of the Lincolnian response to that?

LA: The essence is correct, right, but if you take a human being, they all have the same nature. And so you put one in Maine, and you put one in Kansas, and in the end, their rights are the same.

HH: Are the same, and so what, topography is different, because it is different sorts of topography. Man is the same, because it’s always the same man.

LA: That’s right, and our rights do not come from, and our good does not come from soil and climate, but from our essential nature as a rational creature.

HH: And when we return, we’ll hear a little bit of Mr. Lincoln’s argument in the third debate. Don’t go anywhere, America, the Hillsdale Dialogue continues.

— – – –

HH: We can’t really give scope to all of the things we cover, and today, Mr. Lincoln’s speech at Jonesboro, Illinois on September 15th, 1858, went for an hour and a half. And I’m going to play you two minutes and 21 seconds of it. So it’s not really representative of it, but let’s listen to it, and then Dr. Arnn can tell you how he dealt with the onslaught, and I hope you get a sense that Douglas was very good at painting Lincoln into a very small corner. And here’s how Lincoln began to break out of it in the second paragraph of his rebuttal.

DS (as Lincoln): He says, “Why can’t this Union endure permanently, half slave and half free?” I have said that I supposed it could not, and I will try, before this new audience, to give briefly some of the reasons for entertaining that opinion. Another form of his question is, “Why can’t we let it stand as our fathers placed it?” That is the exact difficulty between us. I say, that Judge Douglas and his friends have changed them from the position in which our fathers originally placed it. I say, in the way our fathers originally left the slavery question, the institution was in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind rested in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. I say when this Government was first established, it was the policy of its founders to prohibit the spread of slavery into the new Territories of the United States, where it had not existed. But Judge Douglas and his friends have broken up that policy, and placed it upon a new basis by which it is to become national and perpetual. All I have asked or desired any where is that it should be placed back again upon the basis that the fathers of our Government originally placed it upon. I have no doubt that it would become extinct, for all time to come, if we but readopted the policy of the fathers by restricting it to the limits it has already covered-restricting it from the new Territories. I do not wish to dwell at great length on this branch of the subject at this time, but allow me to repeat one thing that I have stated before. Brooks, the man who assaulted Senator Sumner on the floor of the Senate, and who was complimented with dinners, and silver pitchers, and gold-headed canes, and a good many other things for that feat, in one of his speeches declared that when this Government was originally established, nobody expected that the institution of slavery would last until this day. That was but the opinion of one man, but it was such an opinion as we can never get from Judge Douglas or anybody in favor of slavery in the North at all. You can sometimes get it from a Southern man.

HH: Isn’t that interesting, Larry, it’s so artful.

LA: Yeah.

HH: He uses Brooks, who in a famous episode, attacked Sumner on the floor of the Congress and beat him into a pulp.

LA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: And it’s just beautifully done on many levels.

LA: That’s right, and see, what that means is, see, Douglas, here’s why Douglas is in a bad spot. Douglas wants to embrace the Dred Scott decision, because the Dred Scott decision rules that the federal government nor any of his agents has authority to restrict slavery, because under federal law, the white man, the black man has no rights that the white man is bound to respect. So then Lincoln says, great, that means that the territorial governments, which operate under the authority of Congress, have no right to limit slavery. And Douglas thinks up, and Lincoln answers most authoritatively in this Jonesboro debate, Douglas’ claim. He says okay, sure, but if a territory will just not adopt laws, just refrain from adopting laws to protect slavery, it can’t go there. You see, so Lincoln keeps making Douglas say over and over, territorial governments can stop slavery, and that alienates his southern base. But the northern base, they may not want abolition, but they don’t want slavery to spread, and they don’t want to compete with it, and they don’t want it in their own state.

HH: So Lincoln is building a presidential campaign two years in advance of the campaign.

LA: That’s right, and the sign of that is that quick as a whistle, after these were finished, Lincoln started getting the debates compiled into a book. And he had conducted the debates all along so that in each one of them, he breaks new ground.

HH: And we’ll come back next week to the fourth debate, but I want to ask you about Straithern here. How do you think he presents Lincoln?

LA: You know, I love these guys, both of them. I think, first of all, I’ve met Richard Dreyfuss one time. I don’t know all that much about him, except that I had dinner at a table where he was one time and found him to be an incredibly pleasant man.

HH: May I tell you that whenever I’m ever asked my favorite interview ever, I always say three and a half hours with Richard Dreyfuss?

LA: Is that right?

HH: …from which, yes.

LA: Yeah, you know him.

HH: I ran out of tape.

LA: I see, and you know, I know him a little, and I just think, I’ve always liked him as an actor, and I’ve always liked Straithern as an actor, too. He’s, and he’s, you have to remember that one of the difference between Lincoln, there are two, between Lincoln and Douglas, is first of all, logical. Lincoln, you know, he memorized all of the propositions of Euclid, and he talks like a guy who’s done that. And then the other thing that’s different is there’s a kind of looming, moral judgment all the time in Lincoln, and he’s telling people we can’t do this. There’s a doom coming upon us if we do.

HH: And we’ve got less than a minute. I was in your home after you received the Bradley award, and young Tom Cotton, the great Senator from Arkansas, was talking, and I had been reading these things. And I get a sense, and I don’t think it’s because of friendship, that his demeanor is not that unlike of the way that Lincoln argues, do you think?

LA: Oh, yeah. He’s, my wife says of Tom, he’s very focused, isn’t he? And Lincoln was like that, too. And Tom’s, you know, this all, angular guy.

HH: Exactly.

LA: And you know, so he, and he’s, Tom, like Lincoln was rustic and hilarious, right, which is one of his, not in these debates so much, but one of the reasons people, as George Bush would say, misunderestimated him is because he was like that. Tom is not like that, but he carries himself, as you say, like Lincoln.

HH: Yeah, this is a wonderful, you have to tell, what’s the name of your student who…

LA: Ryan.

HH: …Ryan, that he has done us a good thing, and I’ll bet, I’ll bet that many, many thousands of people are going off, I could teach a course off of these tapes.

LA: Oh, yeah. People should go buy it. is where you can get it.

HH: Yeah, Dr. Larry Arnn, we will talk next week about debate number four. Lincoln goes first next week. We’ll give him more time. Don’t go anywhere, America.

End of interview.


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