They Don't Make Debates Like This Anymore

Reviewed by Michael F. Bishop
Sunday, February 17, 2008


The Debates that Defined America

By Allen C. Guelzo | Simon & Schuster | 383 pp. $26


The Duty of A Statesman

By William Lee Miller | Knopf. | 497 pp. $30

This year marks the sesquicentennial of the great debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, which transformed a contest for a Senate seat into a battle for the future of the republic. Allen C. Guelzo, already in the front rank of Lincoln historians and author of the best book about the Emancipation Proclamation, has now written an important one about this legendary campaign.

Douglas, the Democratic incumbent, was the author of the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, repealing the Missouri Compromise that had previously forbidden the spread of slavery into the Western territories. Lincoln wrote that this legislation "aroused him as he had never been before," and his somnolent political career was given fiery new purpose. He soon became the recognized leader of the nascent Republican Party, and after an unsuccessful run for Illinois's other Senate seat in 1855, he challenged Douglas in 1858. Senate seats in those days were awarded by state legislatures, and the two candidates launched a furious battle to elect a majority in the statehouse.

The grand rhetoric of the campaign began when Lincoln, accepting the Republican nomination, warned that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." The contest continued in seven debates across the state, where thousands of voters gathered to listen and enjoy the spectacle. At the heart of the debates was Douglas's argument that "popular sovereignty," by which the residents of a territory could choose for themselves whether to accept slavery, would defuse the political tensions then convulsing the country; Lincoln replied that slavery was morally wrong and not among the "choices" available to a free and decent people. Lincoln lost the campaign but gained fame for his valiant effort, and the publication of the debates spread that fame throughout the country.

Guelzo brings these forensic contests to stirring life; both the great principles and the raw politics get their due. More clearly than previous accounts, Lincoln and Douglas shows how each candidate struggled to unite his internally fractious party, a challenge almost as great as that posed by his opponent on the stage. And, through a detailed analysis of voting patterns, Guelzo shows how close Lincoln came to winning the Senate seat, even in a state as heavily Democratic as Illinois. This is a work of both philosophical nuance and colorful detail.

With President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, William Lee Miller concludes the "ethical biography" begun in his justly acclaimed Lincoln's Virtues. That volume charted the moral development of the frontier youth and prairie politician; this sequel carries the story from his inauguration to eventual martyrdom.

Lincoln gives the lie to the notion that political greatness depends on long experience in office. He took the oath with only a single term in Congress behind him. But Miller demonstrates that even a man with Lincoln's innate qualities could and did make mistakes. He relates in amusing fashion the story of the USS Powhatan, and how an excess of secrecy and unfamiliarity with naval bureaucracy caused Lincoln to direct that unfortunate warship to two besieged posts at once, Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens.

It was the president's great gift, however, to be able to learn from his mistakes. And his natural self-confidence, bolstered by the dawning realization that his judgment was usually superior to that of his political and military subordinates, made him more and more the master of his office. By the time the book concludes with a moving account of the international reaction to Lincoln's death, the reader will share in the emotions that swept the globe.

Miller is uncommonly skilled at blending narrative and analysis. The reader is swept smoothly along by his charming, avuncular prose as he portrays Lincoln's magnanimity toward opponents, concern for the suffering of others and eagerness to pardon the condemned.

Yet Lincoln's dazzling qualities can have a blinding effect; there were more shadows flickering beneath the light of his character than Miller acknowledges. Ambition as consuming as Lincoln's is never wholly virtuous. And Lincoln could be ruthless in his prosecution of the war; he could not have prevailed otherwise. Not for nothing did Lincoln brood over Shakespeare's "Macbeth." In the third of the late George MacDonald Fraser's brilliant Flashman novels, his rascally but perceptive hero meets the young Congressman Lincoln, and muses: "Just why I liked him I can't say; I suppose in his way he had the makings of as big a scoundrel as I am myself, but his appetites were different, and his talents infinitely greater." But in Lincoln's case, the light overwhelmed the shadow, and President Lincoln is one of the best and most beautifully written accounts of the great man's years in the White House. *

Michael F. Bishop works at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; from 2002-06, he was executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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