Wills calls Lincoln-Douglas debates 'a great tragic drama'

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The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates were unprecedented, landmark events of political rhetoric in their time, historian and author Garry Wills said in a public lecture Sept. 17 in Cornell's Statler Auditorium.

"Using speeches as a campaign tool was an innovative idea, and Lincoln should be given credit," Wills said during his talk, "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 150 Years Later." Wills is the author of "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Shaped America," Cornell's 2008 New Student Reading Project selection and a 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winner.

Both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were skilled orators, and Lincoln especially admired his contemporary Daniel Webster. "Oratory and highly rhetorical drama were [Lincoln's] favorite readings," Wills said.

The candidates for the U.S. Senate -- Douglas, the incumbent Democrat, and Lincoln, the Republican upstart -- didn't call them "debates"; they agreed to hold a series of seven "joint discussions" in Illinois towns in different legislative districts.

"Lincoln pestered him into it; he made a nuisance of himself," Wills said. "He followed him around, speaking the next day in the same towns."

The debates differed from the "meet-the-press" format of modern political debates, he said. Instead, each speaker had to talk for the full 90 minutes they were allotted. The debates, which focused largely on slavery, were widely reported, and Lincoln became famous as a result. Although he lost the election in 1858, he successfully ran for president two years later.

Wills said the nature of the rhetoric in the debates followed the form of courtroom oratory. The issues involved were so sensitive that "Each man was 'estopped' from speaking his true mind," Wills said, using the legal parlance. "Challenging slavery made [Lincoln] an abolitionist, and abolition was condemned by the people of Illinois. Each man was forced to shy off of their own extremes of each of their two positions."

In conclusion, Wills said, "History and politics were hemming both of these men in -- they were thrashing about, becoming litigious. It was not a political debate; it was a great tragic drama."

Wills answered questions from the audience, including "What would Lincoln think of America today?"

"He would think what we all think -- that it's a mess," he said. "It's a hell of a lot better than his day, because there's no slavery."

He also addressed a reading project topic -- the possibility of racism in some of Lincoln's views. "Calling him racist is ridiculous," he said. "It's applying our standards to his standard. He was very egalitarian towards individuals." Lincoln was merely a man of his time, Wills said.

"He was constantly striving to realize the ideal -- that's why he's a transcendentalist," said Wills, who then recalled asking the Dalai Lama a few years ago what the spiritual leader would do differently if he were to return to Tibet. "He said, 'I'd disestablish the religion -- the American system is the best one.' You see, our ideals live on, even when we don't live up to them."

Cornell professor of government Ted Lowi introduced the author. "Garry Wills is a true public intellectual -- a term sometimes said with a sneer, sometimes with reverence," Lowi said. "As a public intellectual, he's the genuine article, because he's had a career with his Ph.D. in the normal ordinary processes of scholarship -- and when he goes off and does something, he's eloquent as hell."

Wills' lecture was sponsored by the University Lectures Committee and the Office of the Provost.

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