Debating Lincoln in the 21st Century

Are you aware that our nation is currently celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Lincoln Douglas debates?  It is pretty easy to forget our historical anniversaries as our nation undergoes its own series of debates regarding the economy, the Iraq war and the future presidential election.  I recently watched both debates and found myself fascinated by the fact that, at least in the presidential debate, the candidates had time to actually talk about the issues that were facing America.  Imagine if  Obama and McCain decided to go to seven cities in America, representing different geographical areas.  Imagine if McCain won the coin flip (I would hope they would flip a penny) and got to go first and talked at length (about an hour) about his vision for the nation and how to deal with the problems that faced it.  Then, Obama would get up and offer a rebuttal after having carefully listened to what McCain had said, while laying out his own vision.  McCain would then get the last word in with a 30 minute response to conclude the debate.  The two candidates would then hop into their private planes and fly to another city, where the debate would commence again, this time Obama beginning and using the opening remarks to challenge any leftover issues or views and then offer a new part of his platform.  No soundbites, no spin room.  No “talking heads” debating for hours on end about body language or acts that could be viewed as condescending.  Just straight ideas, visions and deep discussions.  

I have often wondered what the debates between Lincoln and Douglas would have been like in a modern arena.  There sits Horace Greeley to moderate and Lincoln would have 90 seconds to criticize the Dred Scott ruling, challenge popular sovereignty in 60 seconds and respond to Douglas’s assertion that Lincoln favored black equality in 30 seconds.  Would the members of the state legislature in Illinois, when they went to cast their votes in this Senate race, have a different view?  Would a legislator vote for Douglas because Lincoln slouched over and sighed or vote for Lincoln because he looked more Senatorial? 

Speaking of debates, it seems this year that the media turned to Lincoln and Douglas as guidance for discussion pertaining to the debates.  Check out this clip from a Fox News Weekend program, regarding the debates:  .

When I first saw this clip, I paused to wonder how many Americans actually thought that Frederick Douglass (different spelling from Stephen Douglas- both in terms of first and last names) was the man who debated Lincoln.  I thought, surely, millions wrote to Fox to tell them about this historical error and to reassert their historical knowledge.  Right?

Does this episode raise larger questions?  Did the news intern/staffer at Fox simply not know their history?  Did they not take a survey class, when their instructor, talking about the causes of the Civil War, showed them pictures of Lincoln and Douglas and talked about the arguments?  Or was it assumed, that because the program was trying to make a connection to Hillary Clinton (white) and Barack Obama (black), that it simply assumed that Douglas had to be black?  Is this just an error, a goof, a mistake, or is it one with a deeper meaning that reveals our own views on history and race?  The optimist in me says it was just an error and that Americans knew the real Douglas.  The realist in me, teaching history in a society that does not seem to value a sense of the past as they once did, thinks otherwise. 

The concern I have with historical illiteracy prompted me to create the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Symposium.  On Monday October 13, 2008, Dr. Lucas Morel will come to ESU to talk about race, slavery and the sprit of 1776, as it applies to the Lincoln Douglas debates.  This is the first of five significant and important presentations that have been designed to share Lincoln with the public once again.  My own hope is that someone in the audience, when they work for a news organization, will pipe up in a production meeting and say, Douglas was that white, chubby guy.

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