Washington — In 1854 reporters were trying out a new device: Some of them thought they had mastered ''phonographic'' transcription to a point where it would alter journalistic history. That is, they could take down a speech (or a debate even) as fast as the speakers talked - audience interruptions and all.
For example, Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas (who wanted to be reelected so he could run for president in 1860) had just been up in Chicago where he spoke on the evening of July 9. A young reporter, Robert H. Hitt, claimed to have taken it down in the new shorthand. And there it was, in the Chicago Tribune next morning, to the mortification of James B. Sheridan and Henry Binmore of the Chicago Times. They had gone to bed intending to write up their notes the next day in the customary manner.
And now that Republican candidate, the tall black-haired one with hollow cheeks, Abraham Lincoln - was challenging the ''Little Giant'' to debate and, sure enough, they were going to meet seven times all over Illinois: What excitement - it will bring reporters from everywhere. The two men will certainly debate extension of slave states, and what an opportunity to try out ''phonography.''
Who was this Bob Hitt? Well, he was self-taught. When he was 15, a man named Pickard gave him some ''phono-graphic'' manuals, he said. He picked up enough shorthand to take notes and practiced the art and gained speed. At the time of the debates, he was probably the only stenographer in the West who could take a speech verbatim from the rostrum. Lincoln wanted him to come along on the speeches to give the Republican version of what was said.
Partisan papers garble the debate with no official transcript. Here is what the Chicago Times, (Democrat) reported on the Freeport debate, Aug. 29, 1858:
Mr. Lincoln: Fellow Citizens, Ladies and Gentlemen. . . .
Deacon Bross (the presiding officer): Hold on Lincoln. You can't speak yet. Hitt ain't here, and there is no use of your speaking unless the Chicago Press & Tribune (Republican) has a report.
Mr. Lincoln: Ain't Hitt here? Where is he?
A Voice: Perhaps he is in the crowd. . . .
Hitt was identified, but the crowd was so jammed that he couldn't get to the platform. By one account, he was put in a chair and passed over the heads of the crowd.
Other reporters at the debates were Horace White, for the Tribune; Henry Binmore of England, self-taught phonographic writer who had a system of his own that nobody else could read, employed by the pro-Douglas St. Louis Republican; and others.
Who was this Lincoln? Everybody knew Douglas, but this tall, gangling Lincoln (though he once served a term in Congress) was a dark horse. The 1,500 delegates of the new Republican Party had just nominated him for Senate at Springfield. There they forgot his oddities - his gangling figure, his rumpeled vest and trousers - when he began to talk:
''A house divided against itself cannot stand,'' he said.
''I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.
''I do not expect the Union to be divided - I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
''It will become all one thing or all the other. . . .''
No wonder emotions rose. By inference, Lincoln charged a conspiracy to extend slavery into free states. The plan was there, he said, ''before the first lick was struck.''
In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the eyewitness account in the New York Evening Post (Aug. 23), describes the urbane Douglas's shirt, ruffles and all - ''a short, thick-set, burly man, with large round head, heavy hair, dark complexion, and fierce bull-dog bark. . . .''
And then Lincoln:
''Built on the Kentucky type, he is very tall, slender, and angular, awkward even, in gait and attitude. His face is sharp, large-featured, and unprepossessing. His eyes are deep-set, under heavy brows; his forehead is high and retreating, and his hair is dark and heavy. In repose, I must confess that 'Long Abe's' appearance is not comely. But stir him up, and the fire of his genius plays on every feature. His eye glows and sparkles, every lineament, now so ill-formed, grows brilliant and expressive, and you have before you a man of rare power and of strong magnetic influence. He takes the people every time, and there is no getting away from his sturdy good sense, his un-affected sincerity, and the increasing play of his good humor, which accompanies his close logic and smoothes the way to conviction. Listening to him Saturday, calmly and unprejudiced, I was convinced that he has no superior as a stump speaker. . . .'' (The dispatch is signed simply, ''Bayou.'')
In 1906, the Illinois State Historical Library collected contemporary accounts of the debates. They make it vivid. You see it as the farm crowd saw it on those hot three-hour afternoons pushed against the speakers' platform, 125 years ago: the ridiculous contrast between the short Douglas and the tall Lincoln (before history rendered him in marble). The crowd is part of the drama. It participates, interruptions are recorded. Amid trivialities there is the feeling of a nation in peril.
At Ottawa, Ill., Lincoln said, ''I hope you will permit me to read a part of a printed speech that I made at Peoria which will show . . . the position I took in the contest of 1854.''
A Voice: Put on your specs.
Mr. Lincoln: You see I am obliged to do so; I am no longer a young man [ laughter]. . . .''
Or there is the report sent to the New York Daily Tribune (Sept. 1):
''Douglas is no beauty, but he certainly has the advantage of Lincoln in looks. Very tall and awkward, with a face of grotesque ugliness, he presents the strongest possible contrast to the thickset, burly bust, and short legs of the Judge. They tell this story of Lincoln in Southern Illinois, where he resides:
'' 'Being out in the woods hunting, he fell in with a most truculent-looking hunter, who immediately took a sight on him with his rifle.
'' 'Halloo!' said Lincoln, 'What are you going to do, stranger?'
'' 'See here, friend. The folks in my settlement told me if ever I saw a man uglier than I was, then I must shoot him; and I've found him at last.'
'' 'Well,' said Lincoln, after a good look at the man, 'shoot away, for if I am really uglier than you are, I don't want to live any longer.' ''
The dispatch is signed, simply. ''Sauganash.''
What did the scene look like? James MacGregor Burns imagines the scene in his splendid ''The Vineyard of Liberty'' (Knopf 1982): ''of farmers arriving in buckboards, buggies, carriages, and carts, of roads so enveloped in dust as to resemble great smokehouses, of farmers in overalls and their wives in hoop skirts and young mothers with babies at their breasts standing in the burning sun for . . . hours. . . .''
Or here is the account from historians Morison and Commager in their ''Growth of the American Republic,'' somewhat abbreviated:
Imagine some parched little prairie town of central Illinois, set in fields of rustling corn, a dusty courthouse square surrounded by low wooden houses and stores blistering in the August sunshine, decked with flags and party emblems . . . brass bands blaring out, ''Hail! Columbia'' and ''Oh! Susanna,'' wooden platform with railing, perspiring semicircle of local dignitaries in black frock coats and two-quart beaver hats. The Douglas special train pulls into the ''deepo'' and fires a salute from the 12-pounder cannon bolted to a flatcar at the rear. Senator Douglas, escorted by the local Democratic club in columns of fours, drives up in an open carriage and aggressively mounts the platform. His short, stocky figure is clothed in the best that the city of Washington can produce. . . . Abe Lincoln, who had previously arrived by an ordinary passenger train, approaches on foot, his furrowed face and long neck conspicuous above the crowd. He shambles onto the platform, displaying a rusty frock coat the sleeves of which stop several inches short of his wrists. His face, as he turns to the crowd, has an air of settled melancholy.
How Dickens would have roared with laughter at the sight of the two champions - the frenzied gestures of Douglas, and Lincoln's awkward habit of bending his knees and then rising to his full height with a jerk, in order to enforce a point - and how he would have listened to them in the end.
For no recorded debate in the English language surpassed those between Lincoln and Douglas for keen give and take, pithy Saxon language, and clear exposition of vital issues.
Yes on the surface it's jolly - a fair day atmosphere in the prairie town. But what's that rumble underneath? Is it the thunder of Armageddon? As to the senatorial election - Douglas wins, Lincoln loses. Or has he lost? Lincoln has established a national reputation for the presidential election that is coming up in 1860. . . .
Meanwhile, the long speeches end, the weary crowd loses cohesion and turns back into families and individuals, and the buggies drive off over the lonely prairie. They are iron men who are speakers and throw their voices for an hour and a half to the edge of the crowd. But it's an iron crowd, too, ready to stand three hours and listen. True, they have few competing attractions, but it isn't as though they are exactly idle: nothing to do but a 12-hour farm day, then slop the pigs, milk the cows, and tumble into bed at nine.
Back home they think it over. What was it Lincoln said about a house divided against itself cannot stand?