Chicago, Ills. July 24, 1858. Hon. S. A. Douglas n My Dear Sir:

Will it be agreeable to you to make an arrangement for you and myself to divide time, and address the same audiences during the present canvass? Mr. Judd, who will hand you this, is authorized to receive your answer; and, if agreeable to you, to enter into the terms of such arrangement. Your Obt. Servt A. Lincoln

They met seven times in towns throughout Illinois, along the rivers and on the prairie, upstate and down, speaking in broiling sun and chilling rain before huge crowds who came to see them regardless of the dust or mud or winds and changing weather of summer and fall.

Their arrangement was simple: each spoke for an hour and a half each time they met. The first speaker would open an hour's discourse. His opponent would reply for an hour and a half. Then the first speaker was allotted 30 minutes for a rejoinder. Douglas wanted to go first at their initial encounter. It was a clear advantage, as Lincoln recognized, but he agreed. "Although by the terms, as you propose, you take four openings and closes to my three, I accede, and thus close the arrangement," he wrote.

Those Lincoln-Douglas debates affected American history and set so high a standard that no other candidates till this day have tried to match them. In the 122 years since, presidential candidates twice have staged what were called debates. But neither the Kennedy-Nixon nor Carter-Ford televised head-to-head meetings of 1960 and 1976 were worthy of the term debates; they were panel discussions, produced along the lines of a "Meet the Press" format.

Now the issues is before us again, and controversy swirls over the timing, staging, rules, places and appearances. In The Washington Post the other day, two views were offered under the headlines, "The League Makes the Rules . . . Not the Candidates." The main point, as expressed by Jim Karayn, director of the so-called debates four years ago and a member of the League of Women Voters citizen's advisory committee for the proposed 1980 model, and Joseph Foote, a project writer for the '76 TV sessions, is:

"The debates are too important to be left to the candidates; they must be mounted and managed by surrogates of the people."

Those writers go on to say: ". . . the public should support the idea of an orderly process for debates, with sponsorship by one organization. We do not need a debate one week sponsored by the National Press Club and one the next held by the Ladies Home Journal . . . The debates should be committed to the custody of one established and credible organization." Naturally, the League, they say.

What pompous self-serving hogwash, and what a contemptuous misreading of history.

The debates are in trouble, all right, but not because the candidates won't let the League of Women Voters tell them what to do and when and how. It's because the candidates themselves can't agree to open themselves up to the most intensive kind of scrutiny and self-examination. They don't need any organization to dictate rules or any members of the press to ask them questions.All they need is to agree on terms among themselves, hire a hall, invite public coverage and go at it.

For each, the risk would be high. For one of them the rewards would be great. And together they would be restoring to our political life an example of true unfettered debate established so memorably long ago in Illinois. The real winner would be the public -- and our badly tattered political process.

I have just finished reading, for the first time, all of the words uttered by Lincoln and Douglas in their series of seven debates. A stenographic record was made of each debate, and complete texts were published in the major papers of that day. Often the great performances of the past turn out, upon modern examination, to be so musty and antiquated you wonder about the praise and reputation they earned. That's not the case with the Lincoln-Douglas debates. They are far more alive and revealing than I would have dreamed.

If you knew nothing about these men and only read their words, their character, cast of mind and beliefs would nevertheless clearly emerge. They spoke with seriousness, humor, wit and eloquence -- and they challenged each other's views with so determined an attack that it left no doubt of where they stood on the issues, and why. This was no mealy-mouthed affair; they truly tore into each other. One exchange only.

After one of their debates, Douglas gave an account to a newspaper reporter which said: "The very notice that I [Douglas] was going to take him [Lincoln] down to Egypt [Ill. for another debate] made him tremble in the knees so that he had to be carried from the platform."

When they next met face-to-face in verbal combat, Lincoln read from that passage in the paper, and then said:

"Now that statement altogether furnishes a subject for philosophical contemplation. [Laughter] I have been treating it in that way, and I have really come to the conclusion that I can explain it in no other way than by believing the Judge is crazy. [Renewed laughter.] If he was in his right mind, I cannot conceive how he would have risked disgusting the four or five thousand of his own friends who stood there, and knew, as to my having been carried from the platform that there was not a word of truth in it."

Douglas -- "Didn't they carry you off?"

Lincoln -- "There; that question illustrates the character of this man Douglas, exactly. He smiles now and says, 'Didn't they carry you off?' But he says then, 'He had to be carried off'; . . . Judge Douglas, why didn't you tell the truth? [Great laughter and applause."]

Lincoln ended that segment by saying: "My time, now, is very nearly out, and I give up the trifle that is left to the Judge to let him set my knees trembling again, if he can."

In their last encounter, in his closing words, Lincoln brought months of bitter arguments over the searing issue of slavery to an end by saying:

"That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong -- throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' [Loud applause].

"No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle . . ." Hon. J. Carter, R. Reagan, J. Anderson My Dear Sirs:

Please find it agreeable to make an arrangement among yourselves to divide time and address the American people during the present election. Your country needs it. Your Obt. Servt H. Johnson