The Little Men Behind the Curtain: The Committees, Connectors, and Carpenters Who Made the Lincoln-Douglas Debates Happen

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"In ordinary times," wrote Samuel P. Bowles' Springfield, Massachusetts Republican, in June, 1858, "the force of party machinery is all-powerful in this country,--defying even the assaults of its architects." It was the great disgrace of American politics that it had degenerated by the 1850s into "the rule of party as against both men and principles." In campaign after campaign, "the [news]papers and leaders that constitute this machinery exhibit a bitterness of spirit towards all who differ with their policy that shows how determined is their purpose." In that respect, Samuel Bowles, who "hated the rule of party almost as heartily as he hated negro slavery," could easily have served as clinching proof of the most contentious of recent interpretations of popular American politics in the 19th century, that of Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin, whose Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century (1) insists that American politics was really governed by small cadres of party elites. Even though large numbers of Americans were involved in voting and political meetings, Altschuler and Blumin argue, their involvement was only for the sake of the show. Americans were actually "skeptical and indifferent" about politics, and their "involvement" in popular democracy was characterized by "engaged disbelief." (2) Actually, Altschuler and Blumin are only the latest in a chorus of voices stretching back through the Progressive historians, who have handled, often with irritated skepticism, the notion that the American political parties have ever really served the interests of the American people. At their best, the parties served as vehicles for manipulating ethnic and cultural allegiances; at their worst, they allowed party hacks to stage-manage a show of democratic participation, while the people enjoyed the circus. Samuel Bowles would have loved it. (3)

Of course, skepticism about how democratic democracy really is, is always likely to flourish in a national climate of skepticism about the efficacy of government, and it flourishes best of all in the minds of those who lose elections and can find no better explanation for their loss than that democracy itself has gone to the dogs. But transferring that skepticism to 19th century political history is a risky venture. First, as Mark Neely has argued in criticizing Altschuler and Blumin, the idea that "the activities of election constituted an anomaly, an interruption in family and workaday lives," is an implicit criticism of democracy itself, adding for good measure a dash of contempt for the political aptitude of the mass of 19th century Americans, and thus suggesting that either the people or the democracy itself are incapable of sustaining genuine popular government. Second, Altschuler and Blumin's skepticism functions almost entirely on an either/or basis--either there was total popular engagement, or else it was total contrivance--something which, as Michael D. Pierson was at pains to point out in 2002, excludes the practical reality that 19th-century politics could "be both planned and genuinely enthusiastic." (4) But the third rock on which this skepticism about broad-based political participation founders is surely the Lincoln-Douglas senatorial campaign of 1858, and the seven great debates which form its core. For if any political event in the 19th century spoke directly to broad-based engagement and popular political agency on the part of the electorate, it was Illinois in the summer and fall of the very year the Springfield Republican made its complaint. As Richard Carwardine has written, "The Lincoln-Douglas contest of 1858 brilliantly revealed the extraordinary appetite of the Illinois public for democratic engagement" and demonstrated "a remarkable example of sustained participatory politics." (5)

That engagement, however, was a complex one, for what a grass-roots analysis of the Lincoln-Douglas campaign shows is a constant shuttling of power and control back-and-forth between the political public and the structures of party, and sometimes even between structures within the parties. …