Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

By Harry V. Jaffa | Go to book overview

Chapter I
1958: The Crisis in Historical Judgment

A CENTURY has not diminished the fame of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. They are justly regarded as the greatest in American history, although in a deeper sense they constitute as well a unique episode in the history of free government in the Western world. It is doubtful that any forensic duel, any clash of reasoned argument before a popular audience -- or, for that matter, before any legislative body -- ever held the power of decision over the future of a great people as these debates did. Whatever their intrinsic merits, the magnitude of their consequences, for good or evil, is as undeniable as it is incalculable. By opposing Douglas for the senatorship in the Illinois campaign of 1858, Lincoln prevented the Little Giant from capturing the leadership of the free-soil movement, possibly even of the Republican party itself, at a moment when Douglas was being looked upon with the greatest favor by eastern leaders of the party. At the same time that he forced Douglas into a warfare with the Republicans that opened an impassable breach between them-and thereby kept open the place for leadership which he himself soon filled-Lincoln also compelled Douglas to take ground that brought about a new and more disastrous split in the Democratic party, a split which contributed mightily to the election of a Republican, and minority President, in 1860. Thus did Lincoln forge a great link in the chain of events that led to secession and civil war.

Popular tradition has surrounded the debates with the aura which, in retrospect at least, always attends a clash of champions. It has ascribed to them a level of dialectic and rhetoric befitting such a match. As to the intensity of the campaign and the

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