Two-time Lincoln Prize winner Guelzo (Civil War Era History/Gettysburg Coll.; Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, 2004, etc.) colorfully chronicles the most famous Senate campaign in American history.
By 1858, intense controversy over slavery had brought the country to a boil, and partisans rightly looked to the Senate race in the swing state of Illinois for clues to the 1860 presidential election. There, the brilliant orator and incumbent Stephen A. Douglas, father of the incendiary Kansas-Nebraska Act and champion of the doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” battled the little-known, lightly regarded prairie lawyer Abraham Lincoln. Douglas painted Lincoln as a thinly disguised abolitionist and an inconstant patriot, intent on ending the Founders’s experiment in diversity by dictating a way of life to the South and inciting civil war. Lincoln attacked Douglas for destroying the Missouri Compromise and refusing to recognize that the moral issue of slavery was not susceptible to the whims of popular demand. Thanks largely to seven joint debates (actually serialized speeches) instantly transcribed and printed in newspapers that transfixed readers far beyond the state’s borders, Lincoln emerged from the campaign with a national reputation, the glittering star of the still-new Republican Party. Though Douglas prevailed, he was reduced to an exhausted husk of his once powerful self, his national prospects severely diminished. Guelzo memorably describes the campaign’s centerpiece, the Lincoln/Douglas face-offs in the little towns of Freeport, Ottawa, Galesburg, Quincy, Charleston, Alton and Jonesport. He also ably elucidates the importance and the timelessness of the philosophical differences at the heart of the Lincoln/Douglas debates, but he excels most at placing them in their original context, as only a part of a sharply contested, often ugly political campaign, wherein each man spent as much time tending to his own splintered party as he did explaining himself or hammering his opponent.
A crisply articulated, dynamic presentation of how the debates unfolded and why they still matter today.