A Functional Analysis of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

By Benoit, William L.; Delbert, Jeffrey | Argumentation and Advocacy, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

A Functional Analysis of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates


Benoit, William L., Delbert, Jeffrey, Argumentation and Advocacy


Political debates have a long history in the United States. The first presidential primary debate on record, broadcast on radio from Oregon in 1948, featured two Republicans, Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen (Ray, 1961). The first presidential debates from the general election campaign pitted Vice President Richard Nixon against Senator John Kennedy (see, e.g., Benoit & Harthcock, 1999). However, these encounters were considerably pre-dated by the Lincoln-Douglas Senate debates of 1858. These debates are well worth investigating just after their 150th anniversary.

The series of seven debates between incumbent Democrat Stephen Douglas and challenger Republican Abraham Lincoln were an extremely important historical event. The Republican National Committee explained that:

The Republican Party was born in the early 1850's by anti-slavery activists and individuals who believed that government should grant western lands to setters free of charge.... In 1856, the Republicans became a national party when John C. Fremont was nominated for President under the slogan: "Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Fremont." Even though they were considered a "third party" because the Democrats and Whigs represented the two-party system at the time, Fremont received 33% of the vote. Four years later, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to win the White House. (2008)

Before Lincoln won the presidency in 1960, defeating Stephen Douglas, he had run against Douglas for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. Lincoln lost the Senate race to Stephen Douglas in 1858 after the two candidates participated in a series of seven debates throughout the state of Illinois. Although Senate seats were not popularly elected until 1914, after passage of the 17th Amendment (at the time of these debates senators were selected by state legislatures; U.S. Senate, 2008), the Lincoln-Douglas debates are historically very important.

Considerable scholarship has investigated the Lincoln-Douglas debates (see, e.g., Jaffa, 1982). Zarefsky (1990) argues that these debates "were important historical events; they were even so regarded at the time. Because of Douglas's national prominence, and because they might offer a portent for 1860, the debates attracted national attention" (p. x, emphasis original). Zarefsky presents a masterful analysis of the arguments developed in the debates:

"The debates were marked by four general patterns of argument: conspiracy argument, legal argument, historical argument, and moral argument" (p. xii). This essay has a much more modest goal: to report a functional analysis (Benoit, 2007) of these debates. Although it is unusual for social science scholarship to "reach back" 150 years, this essay replicates previous research on U.S. Senate debates employing the functional theory. We believe the importance of the Lincoln-Douglas debates amply warrants this study. Research has investigated the content of more recent U.S. Senate debates (Benoit, Brazeal, & Airne, 2007) and this study will employ that data as a contemporary comparison with the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates. To this end, the assumptions of functional theory will be articulated, the findings of previous research on Senate debates discussed, and the method explained, followed by results and discussion.

FUNCTIONAL THEORY OF POLITICAL CAMPAIGN DISCOURSE

Benoit and his colleagues (e.g., Benoit, 2007) have developed functional theory of political campaigns, which rests on several assumptions. First, the act of voting is comparative: A candidate need not be considered perfect to earn a citizen's vote-a candidate needs to be perceived as preferable to opponents. This means that candidates must distinguish themselves from opponents. Two (or more) candidates need not diverge on every issue, but there must be some distinctions for it to be possible that one will appear preferable to the other(s). Political campaign messages provide the opportunity for candidates to show how they are different from (and preferable to) other candidates. …

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