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Slavery is not the only question which comes up in this controversy. There is a far more important one to you, and that is, what shall be done with the free slave? Stephen Douglas

Beware of book titles. Yesterday we reviewed a book about a “founding father” who freed his slaves. He was in fact the grandson of a notorious Tory who was incapable of managing his family’s estates or businesses, never held elective office, never attended or participated in any of the conventions and was bullied by a northern wife to join a fringe sect and ended his days as an obscure diarist who left a complete record of his failures that are now to be celebrated out of political convenience. He came about as close to being a founding father as [supply the ridiculous comparison of your choice here!]

This book starts down the same slippery slope by crediting the Lincoln vs. Douglas debates as being the arguments that defined America. If you want to read the real arguments that defined America pick up the Federalist Papers. If you want to read history rewritten for the convenience of the cult of Lincoln with neither a genuine explanation of the original motivations nor an accurate rendering of the events and their immediate consequences – or lack thereof – then read this book. We suggest the Federalists!

Lincoln and Douglas : the debates that defined America New York : Simon & Schuster, 2008 Allen C. Guelzo Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Ill., 1858 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xxvii, 383 p., [8] p. of plates : ill., maps ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 315-364) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in  text. VG/VG

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was known as a Illinois railroad lawyer who had achieved his only prominence in state politics as a leader in the new Republican Party – a fringe group of the Whigs. Two years later, he was elected president and was on his way to starting a war that destroyed the last remnants of the Republic.

What carried this failed one-term congressman from obscurity to notoriety was the campaign he mounted for the United States Senate against the country’s most formidable politician, Stephen A. Douglas, in the summer and fall of 1858. Lincoln challenged Douglas directly in his speech – “A house divided against itself cannot stand” – and confronted Douglas on the questions of slavery and the inviolability of the Union in seven debates. As this narrative by Guelzo dramatizes, Lincoln would emerge as a  national figure through ceaseless self promotion

Of course, the great issue between Lincoln and Douglas was slavery. Douglas was the champion of “popular sovereignty,” of letting states and territories decide for themselves whether to legalize slavery. Lincoln wanted an all white territorial expansion and sought to displace the agrarian interests of the South in favor of the industrial ones of the north and the only way he could do this was to destroy the South’s economy and the shortest route to that goal was to end slavery.

Lincoln lost that Senate race to Douglas but Guelzo’s book brings alive their debates with a “Lincoln’s eye view” – historical objectivity is totally foreign to this account –  and details the year of the campaigns investing Lincoln with a stature he certainly did not possess.

He uses the encounters between Lincoln and Douglas to represent what he believes to be the key question in American political life: What is democracy’s purpose? Is it to satisfy the desires of the majority? Or is it to achieve a just and moral public order? Totally absent is any discussion of the fourth amendment right that private property may not be taken without just compensation or that the just compensation required by the Constitution is that which constitutes a full and perfect equivalent for the property taken. Had the north recognized these rights there would have never been a civil war and Lincoln would have faded into obscurity.

A pro-Breckinridge satire on the 1860 presidential contest. Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln (right) and Democrat Stephen A. Douglas (left) appear as boxers squaring off in a ring before a small crowd of onlookers. Douglas is seconded by an Irishman (left), presumably representing Douglas’s Democratic constituency. Lincoln is coached by a black man, who kneels at right, armed with a basket of liquor bottles, and signifies Lincoln’s antislavery leanings. In the background a third candidate, John C. Breckinridge, thumbs his nose and points toward the White House. He is encouraged on his way by a number of men who cheer and doff their hats to him.

Of course the real tragedy was not the inconsequential debates of 1858. That was reserved for the election of 1860 when Douglas would syphon off so much of the popular vote – while winning only 1 state – that Breckinridge would fail and Lincoln would become a minority president and plunge the nation into war. Like Ross Perot opening the door for Clinton and all that has followed from that.

 

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