THE General Assembly of the state of Illinois had spoken, declaring Democrat Stephen A. Douglas the winner of another term as United States senator. His Republican opponent trudged home through the misty Springfield night: ``The path had been worn pig-backed and was slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other out of the way; but I recovered and said to myself, `It's a slip and not a fall.''' Abraham Lincoln's ``slip'' climaxed the most celebrated series of political debates in American history. But most Americans have only a foggy notion of what the fuss was all about 130 years ago.
How did the 1858 debates differ from the presidential debates beginning with Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, and progressing to Bush-Dukakis in 1988? The most obvious difference is that ``Tall Sucker'' Lincoln and ``Little Giant'' Douglas were combating for a US Senate seat held by the latter. Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas spoke in the open air, not in a packed theater or college lecture hall.
The Illinois contestants faced no moderator and no panel of probing newsmen. They had no entourage of speech writers, media consultants, debate coaches, and ``spin doctors.'' There were seven joint debates in 1858, not two, as has become the custom in presidential debates. The format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates featured one speaker addressing the crowd for one hour, followed by his opponent for 1 hours, with the first speaker rebutting for half an hour. The two men, experienced in rough-and-tumble Illinois politics, deftly handled hecklers in the audience, a problem not faced by presidential debaters.
While presidential candidates range over a wide array of issues, Lincoln and Douglas focused on only one: slavery in the federal territories. Douglas asserted that the people of a territory should decide the issue of admitting or barring slaves, while Lincoln argued passionately that slavery must not be allowed to infect the free soil of the West. ```A house divided against itself cannot stand,''' he declared. Confine slavery to the Southern states, where it existed by law, and in the fullness of time it would die. Because in Lincoln's view, slavery was evil. And he chided Douglas constantly for the Little Giant's failure to take a moral stand against the ``peculiar institution'' of the South. For his part, Douglas accused Lincoln of advocating race-mixing and lambasted him as a warmonger for predicting that the nation must eventually become all slave or all free.
Like George Bush and Michael Dukakis, Lincoln and Douglas represented ``the long and the short of it.'' Mr. Lincoln, 6 feet, 4 inches tall, towered over the 5-foot senator. Lincoln's curiously high-pitched voice carried to the edge of crowds of many thousands, while by the end of the debate Douglas had nearly lost his voice.
Color, drama, and hoopla characterized each debate, with surging crowds, marching bands, waving flags, and wagons filled with white-clad girls representing the state of the Union. Spin doctors had, mercifully, not yet been invented, but the thoroughly partisan newspapers of the day partially played that role. After the first debate at Ottawa, Republican papers (accurately) reported that Lincoln's delighted supporters hoisted the gangly politician on their shoulders and carried him off the stage in triumph. The Democratic press jeered that Lincoln collapsed under Douglas's verbal pummeling and had to be dragged off the platform like a sack of meal!
Most historians believed that Lincoln bested Douglas in the debates, but the gerrymandered Illinois legislature elected Douglas. Nonetheless, the debates gave Lincoln national visibility (Douglas was by far the more famous man before 1858) and played a major role in his election as the 16th president of the US. Lincoln went on to triumph, martyrdom, and immortality, while Douglas is remembered today only as the man who debated Lincoln under a broiling Illinois sun so long ago.