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Harold Holzer
Harold Holzer
The Lincoln Douglas Debates
ISBN: 0060168102
The Lincoln Douglas Debates
The seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held during the Illinois senatorial race of 1858 are among the most important statements in American political history, dramatic struggles over the issues that would tear apart the nation in the Civil War: the virtues of a republic and the evils of slavery. In this acclaimed book, Holzer brings us as close as possible to what Lincoln and Douglas actually said. Using transcripts of Lincoln's speeches as recorded by the pro-Douglas newspaper, and vice versa, he offers the most reliable, unedited record available of the debates. Also included are background on the sites, crowd comments, and a new introduction.
—from the publisher's website
The Lincoln Douglas Debates
Program Air Date: August 22, 1993

BRIAN LAMB, HOST:, HOST: Harold Holzer, editor of the book put out in 1993, "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates," why do you think something like this would sell this year?
HAROLD HOLZER, AUTHOR, "THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES": It was a year when we were focused on Presidential debates, or right after the Presidential debates, and I thought and the publisher obviously thought that there would be some interesting comparisons to make between the styles of the debates in the C-SPAN, Larry King era and in the Lincoln-Douglas debate era.
LAMB: What are the greatest misconceptions about the Lincoln-Douglas debates?
HOLZER: Oh, there are many. One is that they were full of high-minded, philosophical, lofty sentiments; that's one which, of course, is not true -- just quite the opposite, in fact. The other, that Lincoln cornered Douglas so that he could elevate himself into the Presidency and doom Douglas' chances for the Presidency two years down the road, which is another misconception. But it's mostly this idea perpetuated, by the way, during this year's debate season by Admiral Stockdale. In his Vice Presidential debate, he got his biggest applause line when he mentioned that he had just finished reading The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and he realized that Douglas, I think he said, was full of little stinky numbers, and Lincoln was filled with the high moral ground or took the high moral ground. He must have been reading it backwards, because it isn't quite the way the real Lincoln-Douglas debates reads.
LAMB: Let's go through all the details. Who was Douglas?
HOLZER: Stephen A. Douglas was the two-term, New England-born, Illinois-bred Senator from Illinois seeking a third term. He was a powerful Democrat in the United States Senate, a leader of the Senate, a leader of efforts to hold off civil war through a series of compromises, and he was the father of a doctrine called popular sovereignty, wherein people in a new territory would have the right, before that territory became a state, to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery in that new territory.
LAMB: Where was he from?
HOLZER: Originally? He was from Vermont, I think, but grew up in Illinois; as a young man came to Illinois, dropped the "S" off his name so that he had one "S" instead of two. Otherwise, he would have been perpetually confused with the person who he didn't like very much, Frederick Douglass, who, in fact, he brought up, mentioned during the debates in a derogatory fashion, because he saw Frederick Douglass at one of the debates riding in a carriage seated next to white women. He used that horrifying spectacle as a warning to the people of Illinois: this is what Illinois will become if you elect Abraham Lincoln to the Senate. Black people and white people will commingle, which, of course, was supposedly supposed to send chills of horror down the spines of people from Illinois. So he was a racist in addition to everything else, not unusual in 1858, and a great public speaker known for ripping his clothes off one garment at a time as he spoke in the heat of debate -- first his coat, then his vest, then his tie. People would joke that if Douglas had given speeches longer than two hours, he would have wound up on the Senate floor with nothing on but his undergarments.
LAMB: At the risk of somebody saying, "Oh, I can't believe you asked that question," who was Abraham Lincoln?
HOLZER: Aside from being the physical opposite of Stephen A. Douglas -- he certainly was; Douglas was called "the little giant," and Lincoln, at that point, was known by the nickname "Long Abe" -- he was a one-term Congressman. He had served in the 1840s in the Congress as a Whig, and he was a co-founder of the new Republican Party, a leader of the Illinois Republicans, and a well-known attorney, successful attorney, but mostly known as a party leader, a public speaker on behalf of other candidates. He had tried for the Senate a few years earlier in a campaign that was not really a campaign. It was just decided in the legislature with no precampaign, no debates, and he had nearly made it, but his party forsook him during the balloting and elected a different fellow.

So he was making his second real effort for the Senate, and this time he said he would only do it if he was nominated for the Senate in advance, which was not the practice in those days. So the Republicans met in convention, and they nominated Lincoln as their first and only choice for the United States Senate, and Lincoln responded with his famous "House Divided" speech -- that was his acceptance speech -- and thereupon a campaign began, which was unusual because Senators were not elected directly by the people in 1858. They were elected by the legislatures, sort of a parliamentary-style election.
LAMB: We'll come back to more of this, the "House Divided" speech in particular, but where was Abraham Lincoln from?
HOLZER: Born in Kentucky, lived briefly in Indiana, and then spent his formative adult years first near Charleston, Illinois, which became one of the debate towns, interestingly, and then moved to New Salem, Illinois, a small river mill town where he supposedly, according to folklore, got his first schooling in letters, met the first woman who interested and inspired him, Anne Rutledge, and determined to become a lawyer and a politician in that log-cabin community.
LAMB: This is a little bit out of sequence, but a couple of points. You talk about the romance between Stephen Douglas and the woman that married Abraham Lincoln.
HOLZER: Mary, right. I'm not sure if I would call it a romance, but that's been exaggerated by films and novels. They certainly knew each other. Douglas spent a good deal of his early years in Springfield before he moved to Chicago, and he was supposedly quite interested in this young Lexington, Kentucky, belle Mary Todd, who was shipped from Lexington to Springfield to live with her sister so that she could catch a husband. He was a pretty attractive candidate for marriage -- successful, booming voice, leading politician -- but she cast her eyes on this unlikely fellow who supposedly said to her, "I'd like to dance with you in the worst way," prompting her to say, "That was exactly the way he danced." She said very little about it, but she did write that Douglas and others were part of her coterie in Springfield, but "my idolized husband was above them all."
LAMB: How did you get to all this? What do you do for a living normally?
HOLZER: After eight years working for Governor Mario Cuomo and, in fact, doing a Lincoln book with him, which was a terrific experience for me and, I think, for him as well. I now am the chief communications officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
LAMB: And when did you start on this book?
HOLZER: Let's see, which employer am I going to offend by admitting? In '92. Right after we finished Lincoln on Democracy with the governor, it occurred to me that the book we did with the governor was a collection of speeches and letters of Lincoln on the subjects of democracy and self-government, self-determination. The governor had agreed to do it at the request of the Solidarity teachers of Poland who had no material on democracy, they worried, for the moment when the Iron Curtain fell in Eastern Europe. So they asked him if he could recommend something. He recommended Lincoln who's always been an idol of his, and they replied that the Communists had removed Lincoln from the bookshelves in 1945. So he said, "I've got a guy working for me who can do a book. We'll do it together. We'll produce it. We'll have it translated into Polish." And that's what we did.

It took a year and a half, but Poland has several thousand copies of this book in schools and libraries in Warsaw. It's called Lincoln o Demokracji in Polish, and we produced it in the United States as well. Anyway, enough of a plug for that, but in the course of doing that, it occurred to me that a lot of the materials we were working with, when they were representing Lincoln speaking extemporaneously, were not up to the standards that we've come to expect from the "Gettysburg Address" and the "Second Inaugural Address," which are written so magnificently. I wondered how it was possible that a politician who had such difficulty speaking, oh, at railroad stations and at hotel windows when crowds called for speeches, things we included in Lincoln on Democracy because he occasionally said crucial things at these junctures, but how that man who had such difficulty speaking extemporaneously could have spoken so seamlessly and eloquently throughout the course of the Lincoln-Douglas debates -- hours and hours of speechifying and rebuttals and rejoinders with always the perfectly parsed sentences and moments of ringing eloquence. I thought there was something there that we hadn't found yet, and that was what led me to do this new look at the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
LAMB: How old was Stephen A. Douglas? How old was Abraham Lincoln?
HOLZER: Lincoln was 49. Douglas was younger -- that's a good question -- about 45.
LAMB: "This is the first complete unexpurgated text." What does that mean?
HOLZER: Beyond the hype, it means that the previous versions of the Lincoln-Douglas debates -- and there have been about 40 of them, and they were all but canonized exactly this way in "The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln," published about 40 years ago -- all of them relied on texts that were taken down at the time by what I call partisan stenographers, stenographers hired by the respective political parties. The Republicans hired stenographers to work for the Republican newspapers. The Democrats hired stenographers to work for the Democratic newspapers. It was Lincoln who decided, after these debates were published in the newspapers, to have them published in book form. He then used the approved text of his speeches, the approved text of Douglas' speeches, did some more editing himself and produced the version of the debates that we know to this day.

The problem with that is that they differ markedly from the opposition transcripts. The Democratic transcribers also took down what Lincoln said, and the Republican transcribers also took down what Douglas said. The purpose was that two or three days after each debate, the full text of the debate appeared in the newspapers, and, of course, there was no recording equipment at the time and no other way to get the text except to have the shorthand reporters take down the debates. But what had never been looked at was the Democratic version of what Lincoln said, the Republican version of what Douglas said.

I suspected that they would be a lot rougher than the material that we've come to accept as the authentic texts of the debate. In fact, they were. Lincoln had a great deal of trouble parsing sentences, as I suspected he would. He was nowhere near as eloquent in the soaring moments of the debate as he was in the transcripts that his fellows, his supporters, had worked on and he himself had edited. So I thought this would bring us a little bit closer to that unique political culture that made the debates possible, this rollicking atmosphere of celebration and spectacle that occurred at each of these debate towns during those months of campaigning.
LAMB: I'm going to hold this up so that the audience can see. In the front you have a rundown of where these debates where. The date was 1858, and you can see there were two in August, two in September and three in October. Where were those towns?
HOLZER: Ottawa and Freeport were in the northern part of the state. Jonesboro was way in the south. In fact, it was called, the part of the state in which the debate took place was called Egypt. That was the nickname. No one knew whether that meant that it was hot and sultry down there or whether it was because the most famous town there was Cairo, but Douglas kept saying during those first two debates, "I want to trot him down to Egypt and bring him to his milk," whatever that means. It was considered a very untoward thing for a Senator to say. Charleston was in the middle of the state, and, again, that was where Lincoln's stepmother still lived. She lived not far from there. Galesburg was back a bit north, and it was a college town -- Knox College -- and the debate took place on the grounds of this rather progressive college, very much for Lincoln. With Quincy and Alton we move back down south and west toward the river. So the towns were all over the state, chosen by Stephen A. Douglas, by the way. He selected the venues.
LAMB: Why?
HOLZER: Because he was in a position to make demands. The process began in an interesting way. Douglas was much better financed than Lincoln and much better known, even in Illinois, and Lincoln was having trouble getting attention for his nascent campaign. So he devised this idea that he would follow Douglas around to wherever Douglas was campaigning, and after Douglas gave his speech, Lincoln would give a speech in the same place, and, thus, he said, "I'd have the last word on him." So in Chicago, Douglas spoke in the afternoon; Lincoln spoke in the evening. In Springfield, their hometown and the state capital, Douglas spoke one day and Lincoln followed him the next day. Well, the Democratic press started to make fun of Lincoln. They said that it was as if he was a circus performer picking up with the menagerie and moving from town to town. The Republican paper, the Chicago Press and Tribune, now called the Chicago Tribune, proposed this idea of joint debates.

Lincoln picked up the case immediately and challenged Douglas to debates, and Douglas knew from the beginning that this process could be of no benefit to him. He was coasting at that point. He had a stacked legislature there that was almost certainly going to reelect him to the Senate to begin with. The last thing he needed was to waste his time facing Lincoln face-to-face -- of course, as close to face-to-face as they could get, one fellow being 5 foot 2 and the other being 6 foot 4 -- but the code of honor of the West dictated that you couldn't very well refuse. So Douglas had to accept the debate challenge, but he drew the line when Lincoln said, "Let's meet 100 times all over the state." Douglas said, "No." Lincoln said, "How about 50 times?" Douglas said, "Forget it." So Douglas said, "We'll meet in the county seats of each of the counties, and we'll leave out Cook County, because you already followed me in Chicago, and we'll leave out Sangamon County, because you followed me in Springfield. So that leaves seven counties, and we'll meet in seven county seats, and take it or leave it." So Lincoln took it.
LAMB: How long were the debates?
HOLZER: Each debate was three hours, incredibly enough, and the format was nothing like the debates we have today. The first speaker, the opening speaker, spoke for 60 minutes without stop, and then the rebuttal speaker spoke for one-and-a-half hours -- 90 minutes, again uninterruptedly. And finally, the first speaker had 30 minutes to answer the rebuttal -- three hours altogether each time. Audiences not only endured it in both the blazing heat in August in Freeport, for example, and Ottawa but in the freezing rains that suddenly whipped up in the fall. They loved it. It was spectacle, it was theater, it was religion, it was Fourth of July. These were the biggest events to hit the prairie in these people's lifetimes, and they knew it.
LAMB: Was there amplification equipment?
HOLZER: No. There was no amplification equipment, which makes one wonder about some contemporary descriptions of Lincoln's voice as shrill and unpleasant. Clearly these politicians of the 19th century were equipped with incredibly strong voices. It had to have been a prerequisite for a political career, because there were 20,000 people in Freeport, 15,000, 10,000 at some of the other debate towns. The smallest crowd was the 1,500 in, down south in Egypt, in Jonesboro, but these were huge crowds, and they were milling around. There were no seats except for VIPs and for ladies, and there was such a crush for the ladies' seats that in one of the debate towns, the entire bench collapsed sending all the ladies down this slanted half-bench down to the floor.
LAMB: At one point there's a reference that there were no ladies present.
HOLZER: At some of the debates there were no ladies present, but at others, they were there and given the only seats that were available except for the Conestoga wagons and the covered wagons that some of the people arrived on. People sat on their wagons. It makes one wonder how many people actually heard the speeches and how many people were out for the celebration. You know, you had ice cream being consumed and picnic barbecues, liquid refreshment -- a lot of liquid refreshment -- fights breaking out in the back of the auditorium, the back of the crowds, a cannon being fired off. Douglas traveled with his own cannon. That was the only amplification around. He traveled with a brass cannon, and his supporters were instructed to fire it every time he got off a good point against Lincoln. So there was lots of noise, lots of crowd yelling and cheering and booing and talking back, nothing like the debates today where our candidates make such an intentional and careful effort to take the high ground and to be very calm and not answer. Negatives and fighting and audience attacks were part of the game.
LAMB: 1858. Do you know how many people there were in the United States and how many people there were in Illinois?
HOLZER: I don't know either, but obviously, I think 15 million in the United States, 20 million, something like that, 3 million slaves, but I don't know the Illinois population.
LAMB: What was Illinois as a state -- slave, non-slave?
HOLZER: Illinois was changing. Immigration was changing the face of Illinois. Slaveholders were slowly moving out, disappearing into the South. As Illinois was abolishing slavery on its own ground, it was a state really of two halves. The northern half was much like the North in the rest of the United States, committed to stopping the expansion of slavery, at a minimum abolishing it, some people believed -- a few people. Not many people were for abolition, but the southern part of the state, bounded by Southern states and the Mississippi, was very much proslavery. One county in Illinois, a county where Lincoln had spent part of his youth, voted once to bar blacks altogether from entering the county and, I think, by a substantial majority. So it was still very much a racist state believing in the supremacy of the white race but edging toward a liberalization because of population shifts.
LAMB: How big a deal were these debates back then around the country?
HOLZER: They became news after a while. To understand why, again, requires an understanding of the newspapers of the day. They were not nonpartisan like today's newspapers purport to be. They were either Republican newspapers or Democratic newspapers. The Republican papers around the country decided that this fellow Lincoln was making some interesting noise out in the West -- not the Midwest in those days, but the West -- and they began republishing the texts of the debates and also sending correspondents out there to take the measure of the political ferment that they were hearing about, so there were Eastern correspondents on hand. The Democratic papers were publishing Douglas' debates because they saw in Douglas' likely reelection a vindication of popular sovereignty and this notion that slavery could expand, in fact, through popular vote.
LAMB: If you had to pick one of the seven debates to go to and watch, which one would you pick? Is there one that stood out over all the rest?
HOLZER: I would choose the second debate, the Freeport debate, probably just for personal reasons, because Lincoln probably was at his best at Freeport.
LAMB: Up at the top of the state ...
HOLZER: Top of the state.
LAMB: ... parallel with Chicago.
HOLZER: Not too far from Chicago, right. It's the same latitude exactly. He had not done terribly well in the first debate, which introduces us to why he did so much better at Freeport. At Ottawa, this was a new ball game for him. He was a bit outclassed. Douglas posed some rather direct and challenging interrogatories to Lincoln, and Lincoln chose not to answer them in his rebuttal. It was probably a tactical error. He had probably chosen what he wanted to talk about, and he was intent on talking about that. Douglas slaughtered him in the rejoinder, really took him to task for avoiding the issues. After the debate, Lincoln was carried off by his supporters in "triumph."

Some of the Democratic press teased that they should have carried him off before the debate started. But even the supporters saw it as sort of a comical thing, because as they carried him off, his pants rose higher and higher until his underwear was exposed. He must have been wearing long underwear even in August. So his underwear was exposed to the knees, and to see his legs dangling practically to the floor must have been a pretty comical sight. And his supporters were not happy when they read the transcript. One of the Chicago Republicans said, "For God's sake, tell him to charge, Chester, charge." People wrote to him saying, "You've got to wake up. You've got to fight back."

So comes Freeport and Lincoln gets right back at Douglas and answers all of those interrogatories and poses the famous Freeport question, which has divided historians ever since about what Lincoln's intention was. He says to Douglas, "Let me ask you something. You talk about popular sovereignty. What if people in the territory, before forming a new state constitution, vote not to have slavery, even down in the South? Would you accept that?" And he said, "I would have to. That's popular sovereignty." Many historians have concluded that that was Lincoln's way of destroying Douglas in the South and ensuring that he could never win a Presidential election two years down the road. I have my questions about that, but it was an awfully clever thing to make Douglas admit to.
LAMB: When was the first time you ever read the Lincoln-Douglas debates?
HOLZER: I'm not sure I read them through at one sitting ever until I was ready to do this book. A historian named Reinhard Luthin said that the Lincoln-Douglas debates are vastly more admired than they are read, and I think I'm living testimony. Then I read them all at one point or another, but they're not easy reading. In the days before broadcast reports of the news, candidates had to repeat themselves at every stop. They couldn't be sure that their words had been properly understood in the hustings, in towns that they hadn't made personal appearances in. By the way, Lincoln made 60 speeches during the campaign. The debates were just a fraction of his effort. Douglas made 130 speeches. They really worked those small towns.
LAMB: Harper Collins published this book. Have they made their money yet?
HOLZER: Yes, I think they have actually, and if they haven't, I wouldn't tell, but I think they have. Judging from the last statement, I think we're doing very well.
LAMB: This book is copyrighted in 1993. When did it actually hit the bookstores?
HOLZER: I think it hit at the end of the fall between the campaign and Lincoln's birthday, which is always a good time to bring out Lincoln books.
LAMB: Is there any way to profile the kind of person that went in and bought this book?
HOLZER: Fortunately for me, because I write about Lincoln so often, and I have a couple of other projects that are going to be coming out later in this year, the profile is mostly people who are very interested in the middle period of American history. There are a great many people who have a fascination for Lincoln and will happily buy just about everything that comes out as long as they get to know about it, which is always the key. But I think that there was an audience out there who was interested in the political process beyond the Lincoln-Douglas aspect. One of my happiest surprises after the book came out was seeing a profile of James Carville in the New York Times sitting in front, at his desk with a row of books behind him, and I saw The Lincoln-Douglas Debates there.
LAMB: Can you remember in the campaign how often you saw reference to the Lincoln-Douglas debates?
HOLZER: Often, but I see it in every campaign, and politicians are always guilty of the same thing -- canonizing the Lincoln-Douglas debates and referring to it as some lost ideal of American political discourse. Clinton did it; Stockdale obviously did it; Governor Cuomo did it when he ran for mayor of New York in 1977. I was his press secretary then. I remember that very well. But, you know, there were occasions in the debates when Lincoln threatened to stop up Douglas' mouth with a corncob. Douglas used the word "nigger" constantly to taunt Lincoln and Republicans.
LAMB: Did Abe Lincoln use the same word?
HOLZER: He did on one or two occasions. Yes, he did. Interestingly, he did it in a Northern venue, and when he got to Jonesboro, the Southern town, he was on very good behavior and actually said, "I know you people don't agree with me, but let me explain my position on race and on slavery," and he was actually quite high-minded at that debate. But, yes, he did use the word.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
HOLZER: In New York City.
LAMB: In the city.
HOLZER: In the city.
LAMB: Manhattan.
HOLZER: In Queens, same borough as Mario Cuomo which was my saving grace with him.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
HOLZER: Queens College, the city university.
LAMB: When did you first get interested in history or Abe Lincoln, for that matter?
HOLZER: Lincoln was a school assignment in sixth grade -- I never remember, fifth or sixth because it was the same -- but we all had to write biographies of famous people, and we literally drew them out of a hat -- not a top hat, but a hat -- and I drew Lincoln and my friend Dennis drew Genghis Khan, so I, for want of that opportunity, I might not have found Lincoln. That's the most frequently asked question of people who write about Lincoln, and I have just about the worst answer in the Lincoln fraternity.
LAMB: How far do you go with this Lincolnesque stuff? Do you have pictures in your wallet, books on your shelf? Are you a real Lincolnophile?
HOLZER: Yes, not so much pictures on the wall, but certainly I have a library that permits me to do my research at home after work and on weekends so that I don't have to travel to libraries. I just finished a project on letters from the American people to Abraham Lincoln during his Presidency, but that required a lot of microfilm work, because obviously the letters are here in Washington, so that was microfilm.
LAMB: What kind of a person would he be if he were sitting here, do you think?
HOLZER: That's the second most frequently asked question: How would he do today in politics? It's very hard to transpose the Lincoln who could afford to wear, you know, ill-fitting clothes and travel on coach during these debates and generally look like he had just slept for 25 or 30 hours in his suit when he arrived, didn't shave often enough and didn't tend to his hair the way our candidates and leaders do today. But obviously he was smart enough to have adapted, and he probably would have been extremely persuasive.
LAMB: Do you think you would like him?
HOLZER: Presumably he would change some of his politics to update himself to the 20th century. I think he was endlessly fascinating. He was mysterious, though. I think he managed, even with the best of his friends and the closest of his acquaintances, to leave a veil of mystery, something untouchable. You read the reminiscences of the people who claimed to have been closest to him, and they were probably the closest, because there were no others, and there was something they couldn't touch. There was something they didn't know. There was a line that he drew. They didn't know about his childhood. They didn't know much about his family life. He didn't invite many of them home. They didn't know much about what he was thinking. He was a very, very private, close-mouthed person. At the same time, he was a gregarious politician and an enthralling speaker and a great storyteller. He was also a wall.
LAMB: Robert Todd Lincoln is buried out here at Arlington Cemetery near William Howard Taft, but his other three kids are buried with his wife in Springfield. How come?
HOLZER: Robert and his mother had a peculiar and unhappy time after Lincoln was assassinated. There was a great deal of money involved. Lincoln didn't spend much at all of his Presidential salary of $25,000 a year. It's astonishing how much he saved. He really saved $23- to $24,000 a year and that's while sending his son through Harvard. It makes me very jealous, because I'm sending a daughter to Harvard right now, and it's not quite the same thing. I could use the Presidential salary of Abraham Lincoln. When he died, Congress gave his widow an extra year's salary. Basically, there was about $130,000 in inheritance, and Robert called in Supreme Court Justice David Davis, an old Illinois friend, to manage the estate. The estate grew, and Mary's spending habits became increasingly erratic over the years. She was deeply troubled. She lost a son in the White House, she lost a son in childhood, and then she lost a third son, Tad, in the 1870s, and Robert wanted control of the money. He was afraid his mother was either going to lose it, because she carried securities and money on her person in sacks that she had made to fit under her skirts, and she was behaving in an increasingly peculiar way. So he instituted commitment proceedings, and, in fact, she was brought to public court and declared insane and committed for almost a year during which time he gained control of the estate. Then Mary was released. She had another trial, proved herself sane to the satisfaction of the court. She was treated basically with marijuana, which seems to have calmed her down in her asylum days. So they were really never terribly close, and there was a distance even between Robert and his father. He didn't get to see him much after he was elected to the Presidency. He was at Harvard, then at Harvard Law, then in the Army, and I think that Robert's decision not to be interred in the family tomb sort of speaks for himself. He thought of himself as an independent person anyway.
LAMB: You dedicate your book "For my daughters, Remy and Meg, great debaters."
HOLZER: Right.
LAMB: And you talk about the fact in your introduction that Remy is going to Harvard, and it didn't matter to her, I guess, when you told her in the midst of writing this book that Robert Todd Lincoln had gone to Harvard, too. She wasn't too impressed.
HOLZER: She wasn't terribly impressed. Actually, she viewed it as an effort to denigrate her own achievements, so there were no comparisons to be made, and I stopped making them.
LAMB: Did your daughters have any role in your book?
HOLZER: Aside from debating constantly and letting me hear it, well, they've been ...
LAMB: What were they debating with you?
HOLZER: What teenage girls always debate about -- space, power.
LAMB: Not Abraham Lincoln.
HOLZER: Not Abraham Lincoln and not slavery and not race usually. But, no, they were terrific. As I say in the book, they're both very good writers. One is 18 and one is 14, and I have this habit of seizing on a word that I want to use in writing and then not being able to remember it. So I sort of call downstairs, "What is the word that's, I think it starts with an N that means this?" and whoever is downstairs yells up several choices. It's like having a living thesaurus on another level of the house.
LAMB: In your family, was your father or mother a historian or were they interested in Abe Lincoln?
HOLZER: No, they're not historians. My father is a businessman. My mother is a housewife, and I've tried to find a genetic explanation. If there is any, I had an uncle who was a well-known ophthalmologist named Murray Last, who was deeply interested in Jewish history and Judaica, was a major collector in his day, but I barely knew him. He died when I was 4 years old, but that must be the familial explanation for all of this.
LAMB: How much did Abe Lincoln have to do with founding the Republican Party?
HOLZER: A great deal. The Whig Party, which he was a happy and contented member of for the early part of his life -- in fact, most of his political career was spent as a Whig -- was just sort of dissolving with the growing immediacy of the slavery crisis, and he and the more advanced of his Whig friends -- some of them became Democrats -- decided that what was needed was a party that was strictly antislavery expansion. So he organized in Illinois to convert as many Whigs as possible into the new party. It's not quite comparable to the Perot phenomenon which sort of has this bottom-up mentality. It's a grassroots organization. I think the Republican Party was more leadership down, old Whigs looking to organize themselves in a new and appealing way.
LAMB: You work for Mayor Cuomo. He's a Democrat. Would that make you a Democrat?
HOLZER: Yes, that would make me a Democrat. It would probably make Lincoln a Democrat, I like to think.
LAMB: Both parties claim him today, I guess.
HOLZER: They do. I've been present at speeches by both Mario Cuomo and Jack Kemp at which both of them lay very convincing claim to Abraham Lincoln, but I tend to agree with Mario Cuomo when he says that the example that puts him closest to the heart of the Democratic Party is the extension of the ladder of opportunity, the notion that everyone can improve himself and herself.
LAMB: Just to quickly review, seven debates in August, September and October of 1858, two years before he ran for President and won. The first speaker spoke for an hour, the second for an hour and a half. The third had a rejoinder of a half an hour.
HOLZER: That was Douglas' idea, too, by the way, the time sequence. Also he made sure that he spoke first and last at four of the seven debates.
LAMB: Was that an advantage?
HOLZER: Oh, yes. I think generally the person who spoke first and last won the individual debates. The last word was important, except maybe the last debate where Douglas lost because he couldn't be heard. Apparently he'd been just devastated by the campaign physically, and he could barely speak and was apparently not heard at all in that last debate in a town square.
LAMB: Five-two?
HOLZER: Small man, big barrel chest and short legs.
LAMB: You've got a painting here showing the difference in their height. What would he be like if he were here?
HOLZER: Lincoln would have to tone up, and Douglas would have tone down.
LAMB: I mean, what kind of person was he?
HOLZER: Bombastic, fierce, hard drinker.
LAMB: Smart?
HOLZER: Oh, yes, yes.
LAMB: But a bigot.
HOLZER: Yes. Not to cast a glow on bigotry, but it was not unusual to believe in white supremacy if you were white in 19th-century America, and Lincoln himself had to backtrack during the entire debate proceeding from a speech he made in Chicago before the debate started in which he merely said that the Declaration of Independence, which decreed that all men are created equal, extended not only to whites but to blacks. That, he said, was the intention of the founders of the country. Well, for seven debates, Lincoln hemmed and hawed and explained and revised to get away from the notion that he had actually spoken about racial equality. He had to do that, and he probably believed that he hadn't spoken about racial equality.
LAMB: We haven't gotten to the substance of these debates. Spend a little time. What were the debates about?
HOLZER: The thing that's probably the most remarkable is that they really were about one thing and that's slavery. There were lots of diversions. Throughout the debates, you hear Lincoln and Douglas attacking each other for the most ridiculous, off-the-subject things. Douglas attacked Lincoln for his record as a Congressman during the Mexican War, bringing up a 10-year-old issue, saying he hadn't voted for supplies for the soldiers, and Lincoln had to defend that. Lincoln accused Douglas of conspiring with the chief justice of the United States and the President to nationalize slavery. Lincoln knew that wasn't true. He didn't think that Douglas had had a secret meeting with Roger Taney or James Buchanan and decided that we're going to bring slavery to Maine and Vermont.

But part of the debates were about entertainment and weakening your opponent through diversionary tactics, and there was a great deal of that, all these conspiracy theories talked about. Lincoln kept referring to Douglas as Judge Douglas, and it's one of those you-had-to-be-there things, but Douglas had been a judge, and Lincoln had teased Douglas that he had voted as a state legislator to expand the Illinois judiciary specifically so that he could get a judgeship. So every time he called him Judge instead of Senator, he was sort of digging the knife in a little deeper saying, "You made yourself a judge." But basically the issue was slavery, whether or not it could be expanded morally, legally, and the side issue again was this issue of equality, which was a new notion, I think, for the vast majority of people in Illinois, a new thing for them to deal with. This possibility that Douglas raised in an ugly way that when Frederick Douglass was riding through the streets of an Illinois city in a carriage sitting next to white women, was this a typical view of the future? Was it bearable, was it endurable, was it right, was it acceptable?
LAMB: Who was Frederick Douglass? Where was he from?
HOLZER: Frederick Douglass was born a slave and escaped, a brilliant writer who was the leading black figure of his day, ran a newspaper in upstate New York, and was an enormously influential person -- the first African-American who was invited to the White House, invited by Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s to confer.
LAMB: Was he around any of these debates?
HOLZER: Apparently he was around in Freeport, in the second debate town in this carriage. It was exactly where Douglas -- Stephen, that is -- saw Frederick, and that was the sight that so infuriated him that he referred to it there and again and again in the debates. Frederick was also a debater of sorts, and he wanted to debate Stephen Douglas. In fact, he proposed in the 1850s to have what he called an "ebony and ivory" debate with Stephen Douglas, something I found in the old Illinois newspapers. I thought that "ebony and ivory" was a phrase invented by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. I hadn't realized that it went back to the two Douglases. But Stephen Douglas would never consent to debate an African-American, so that was out of the question.
LAMB: Let me read a little bit of Abraham Lincoln from the Ottawa debate. I'm trying to remember whether this is the beginning. I think maybe it's Mr. Lincoln's reply: "I will say here while I am upon this subject, I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no disposition to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races." There's more, of course, but what's he saying there?
HOLZER: He's saying what thinks, I believe, which is that to save the Union for the future and to permit American democracy to inspire the rest of the world to democracy, which Lincoln believed very deeply, the primary goal was to hold the Union together, and the moral goal was to stop the spread of slavery. Lincoln believed that if you stopped allowing slavery into new states that were forming all the time in the West, you created sort of a situation in which slavery would disappear in and of itself -- no more slave trade, no more foreign slave trade. Slavery would sort of disappear and strangle itself, as he believed the Founding Fathers desired from the beginning. On the notion of political and social equality, I don't think Lincoln was prepared for political and social equality in 1858. I think the Great Emancipator that we think of as the Lincolnian ideal developed four or five years later in his life. He developed quickly, but he wasn't there yet in 1858.
LAMB: This Ottawa debate was the first one, August 21, 1858. He goes on: "There is a physical difference between the two," meaning the blacks and the whites, "which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together on terms of respect, social and political equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a superiority somewhere, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position, but I hold that because of all this, there's no reason at all furnished why the Negro, after all, is not entitled to all that the Declaration of Independence holds." He was saying what?
HOLZER: He was saying to all of those who could hear him, "I am a middle-of-the-road Republican. You've heard that I am for equality. I'm really not for equality. I'm for equality of opportunity. I believe that if you earn bread with your own hands, you should eat it with your own mouth." As he joked later in the debates, if God meant for one class of citizens to do all the work and another class of citizens to get all the benefits, then he would have made workers with all hands and no mouth and the beneficiaries of their labor with mouths and no hands. It was his way of saying, "People should earn the fruits of their own labors, but don't worry. I'm not going to make jurors of blacks. I'm not going to make voters of blacks. I'm not going to change the nature of politics in the state. I'm not going to empower people who could drive you out of office or compete for wage jobs with your children." This is what he had to do in order to be a viable candidate in Illinois, but he wouldn't have been a candidate in Illinois if he didn't believe that in the first place.
LAMB: Throughout the entire seven debates, Stephen Douglas tries to position Abraham Lincoln as saying one thing in the North and one thing in the South.
HOLZER: Yes. "His creed don't travel," Douglas said.
LAMB: Do you think that Abe Lincoln did speak differently in Jonesboro and in Freeport?
HOLZER: I think he spoke differently in Chicago and paid for it at the rest of the debates. I think he was pretty good in Jonesboro. That was always an astonishment to me that he was as true to his principles as he was in Jonesboro. Of course, by then he knew that these debates were being published in the Chicago papers, picked up in the Springfield papers, published in Republican and Democratic papers all over the state. It would have been folly for him to be completely different in the southern part of the state than he was in the northern, but he was. He did back away from those Chicago sentiments of equality. To give you an idea, obviously Lincoln was not for equality in 1858. Does that make him a racist? It depends on your definition of racism. The debates portray him as less of a racist than Douglas, but one of the things that was eye-opening to me, again, was the beginning of his speech in Charleston. Here he was coasting. He was coasting. He was the hometown favorite.

He had come to Charleston 30 years before as a young adult. He had come in with his family in an ox cart. They really liked him there. He won that area; Republicans won that area, that is. Of course, there was no direct election, but Republicans did well in the fall. There were banners all over saying, "Old Abe returns to Charleston," "Pioneer boy comes home." So he was in his element there, and he probably could have said exactly what he wanted to say, but what he decided to do is say, "You have heard some people say that I am for equality of the Negro." An interesting start but what is even more interesting is the crowd reaction -- laughter. They laughed at the notion that a mainstream politician could have ever said such a thing, which to me more strongly and more directly and more irrefutably than at any other moment of the debates, paints a picture of what that electorate was like. The electorate was much more racist than Lincoln, and Lincoln did well to position himself as nimbly as he did and maintain the affections of so many voters.
LAMB: Trick question. I've asked some people and can't get an easy answer the last couple of days. At the beginning of the 13 states, there were 12 slave states and one free state. What was the free state?
HOLZER: That is a trick question.
LAMB: They mention it so often in here.
HOLZER: In the debates?
LAMB: We will get letters on this, I want to warn you. Mr. Douglas kept referring to the 12 slave states and the one free state.
HOLZER: It is a trick question, terribly unfair. Massachusetts. Oh, you don't know the answer.
LAMB: I do not, no. No, I was looking to you for the answer.
HOLZER: That's rational.
LAMB: We'll find out eventually.
HOLZER: I hope so.
LAMB: Is this a book that the average person can understand? If somebody's out there listening saying, "I didn't know any of that stuff," should they read it? What's the advantage of reading these seven debates versus just listening to you talk about them?
HOLZER: For one thing, unless you rebroadcast this for the rest of the year, my efforts will be somewhat limited. But the other is that this really gives an idea of what political debating was like before we got as frightened as we seem to be now about letting people have the full range of their emotions and their thoughts and speak as long as they want and allowing audiences to do what they wanted. It paints a picture of a political culture that's really vanished from the United States. Maybe it's not a good thing that it's vanished. This idea that people would participate in as many numbers as they did -- not paid workers, not political supporters, but ordinary people who came in ox carts and ferries and trains, horseback or walked, came in such numbers that towns looked like dust bowls. There was dust rising, enshrouding towns from the numbers of people. And it paints a picture of political involvement and excitement about government that we don't have anymore and that we've lost.
LAMB: You refer at one point to everybody voted?
HOLZER: Yes, it was like 90 percent turnout in 1860 when Lincoln ran for the Presidency. It was a huge turnout.
LAMB: Ninety percent turnout of white males.
HOLZER: Oh, yes, absolutely, 90 percent of eligible voters. I don't think white males are doing so well in turnout these days, so there's been a drop-off of interest.
LAMB: Senator Douglas -- or as Mr. Lincoln referred to him, Judge Douglas -- constantly referred to "black Republicans." What did he mean by that?
HOLZER: He meant that the party that Lincoln had founded was cast -- he meant it in the most pejorative way possible -- was cast as an abolition party. They were all pro-black. They were practically black themselves. Nothing worse could be said about a politician by another politician. But when the Democratic papers did the transcripts of Douglas, the ones that I don't use, they took out "black" and they just made it "Republican." Whenever Douglas said, "nigger," the Democratic papers changed it to "Negro." That's why I went back to the opposition transcripts, because they didn't have those embellishments and those edits and that softening.
LAMB: Dred Scott comes up all the time, Chief Justice Taney and the Dred Scott decision. Who was Dred Scott?
HOLZER: Dred Scott, by the way, became an issue yesterday in the Ginsberg confirmation hearings. Everyone agreed that Dred Scott was a bad thing, which I thought was amusing in the hearings. Obviously, it was a bad thing. Dred Scott was a slave who in the 1850s or even earlier had been taken by his master into free territory and then returned to slave territory. In a test case, Scott sued for his freedom saying that once he was in a free territory he was a free man, and the Supreme Court under Roger Taney, slaveholding Marylander, been there since the age of Jackson, declared that slaves were slaves no matter where they were, that slaves were property, that they weren't human, that they were perpetually ineligible for citizenship, and therefore, in a way, slavery could be nationalized. So it was a watershed that probably did more than any other single event to divide the country and bring it to the brink of disunion.
LAMB: Again, when did you first start working on this particular book?
HOLZER: In early '92.
LAMB: And you finished it?
HOLZER: I finished it in mid-'92.
LAMB: And in order to do this, did you have to go to Illinois?
HOLZER: I went to Illinois to find out if I could get hold of those newspapers that had never been consulted before -- the Democratic version of Lincoln, the Republican version of Douglas. So I had to dig up the old Chicago Times, which is not in great condition. Where I couldn't find the Chicago Times I had to go to the Springfield papers, so, yes, there was some travel there to get those papers. And I wanted to look at some of the debate towns again.
LAMB: What did they look like today?
HOLZER: They still looked small, but they're obviously bigger, but some of them have markers on the spots where Lincoln spoke. Knox College in Galesburg is still there, and they moved the platform that day because it was so windy. They moved it to the side of the college to protect the speakers from the wind, and it created my favorite debate quote of the debates. Lincoln had to go up through the building and out the window to get on the platform, and he said, "At last I've gone through college."
LAMB: Is there anything special about these two pictures on the cover here?
HOLZER: Both were taken in about 1858. That's the best. I wanted the pictures to represent them as they looked, although Lincoln looks rather well-dressed in that picture on the left. Although it's always been identified as 1858, I have my suspicions, I think it might, in fact, now that the book is out, it might be an 1860 Presidential campaign picture. He looked pretty seedy during most of the debates.
LAMB: Have the debates ever been reenacted that you know of?
HOLZER: They're reenacted all the time, but they're not -- in fact, I just came back from Chicago, well, not just came back, about a month ago. I spoke before the Stephen A. Douglas Association in Chicago which exists and thrives there among his old neighbors and their descendants. They go to his tomb every year, and they have a speaker at an annual dinner.
LAMB: Where's he buried?
HOLZER: In a park in Chicago. And there were these two guys from central Illinois. I wish I remembered their names, because they were terrific -- a tall science teacher and a short insurance salesman, and they were absolutely terrific. The Lincoln character's about 6 foot 7, so he really gives an impression of what Lincoln might look like to today's people who are taller than they were in Lincoln's day. They were just wonderful, but they can't do three-hour debates, because no one would sit through it, let alone stand through it as they did then. So they do a half-hour program, and you can hear the rustling in the seats. We've been spoiled by what we expect of debates.
LAMB: What's next for you?
HOLZER: "Dear Mr. Lincoln," which is a collection of the letters to Lincoln coming out in the fall, and unfortunately, because of my brilliant marketing acumen, which is what I supposedly do for a living, another book in the fall called "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Civil War in Art," which is also going to be brought out in the fall and is coauthored with my longtime and frequent collaborator Mark E. Neely Jr.
LAMB: We've got just a short time. I shouldn't do this to you. What's the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and what's your job there?
HOLZER: I'm the chief communications officer of the greatest art museum in the world, certainly the greatest in the United States, and it has a complete encyclopedia of the great creativity of men and women from civilizations from the birth of creativity right up to baseball cards which we just opened at the Met, "The Jefferson Burdick Collection of Baseball Cards." So we run the gamut, and we have things for everyone.
LAMB: Here's what this book looks like. It's called "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates." Harold Holzer was the man that put this together, and it's the first complete unexpurgated text. Thank you very much for joining us.
HOLZER: Thank you.

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