“The Truth about Those Lincoln-Douglas Debates,” by Michael Fowler

Dec 7th, 2011 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

Today’s televised political debates are a difficult medium for the candidates, since each must craft a memorable sound bite of his or her position in thirty seconds for an audience that would rather be watching Dancing with the Stars or Chopped. But were things better on town squares and fairgrounds in Illinois in 1858 when the candidates spoke uninterrupted for two hours on a rickety wooden platform in each of seven open-air encounters?  Here’s the truth about those highly touted Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Meet the Candidates:

At center stage stands Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant of American politics, or Vast Midget as some called him, four-foot three in his custom “lifts,” his outsize rump atop ludicrously short legs almost dragging on the ground, his swollen gravy-and-wine-stained gut pressed against the thin rails surrounding the wooden stage, his cheap toupee askew, with a voice like the bass register of a church organ and the gestures of a drowning man. And beside him stands country lawyer Abe Lincoln, so tall that on fairgrounds the Ferris wheel kept knocking his hat off, looking in stovepipe pants like a scarecrow on stilts, with a high tenor voice like Jenny Lind’s, except he said “cheer” for chair and “agin” for again and “yonder weedhead” for Douglas—in short, two of the most respected and learned men in the nation.

The Stakes:

They met to campaign against each other for the office of senator from Illinois, Lincoln as the challenger from the Republican Party, Douglas as the incumbent Democrat. Both wanted to be president someday, if not king, and would settle for nothing less, out of modesty. Neither thought of losing, but only of what the country would lose by electing his opponent. Lincoln was already famous for his line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand, but can be rented out as separate apartments.” He decided that, if Douglas parlayed a debate victory into holding onto his senate seat, he would climb inside a hollow tree and bay like a dog. Douglas decided that, if Lincoln beat him, he would become press secretary for the prince of darkness.

The Terms:

The two would climb aboard flimsy outdoor podiums and mount wobbly sunbaked prosceniums in seven different towns in Illinois, or whenever they ran into each other as they crisscrossed the state on their independent campaign circuits by steamboat, railroad, or stagecoach, until they got sick of the thing or their war chests petered out. Douglas wanted to carry on into Tijuana, but Lincoln pointed out that since they were running for senator from Illinois, a trip to Mexico seemed counterproductive. Douglas, who had trouble focusing on reality unless it stuck a knife in his side or gave him a venereal disease, immediately agreed.

Fact: The candidates were vague and unfocused, especially in the first six debates (of seven).

Lincoln knew that he had something momentous to do with freedom, but was confused as to his precise platform and message. Was he for freedom or against it, and how much freedom could one man handle before he had to give some to someone else? He didn’t yet know. Douglas, for his part, was only certain that he was the better candidate and that he despised Lincoln, who he considered squishy on the New Testament and utterly incomprehensible to foreigners who weren’t from Kentucky. He also championed freedom, but had a long list of exceptions. Thus the ground was laid for a great and enervating dialogue.

Fact: Fifty percent of the debates was given over to rank advertisements and political paybacks.

After being introduced by the “neutral” moderator Winthrop Perkins of the local “Daily Chronicle” for the first contest in Ottawa, IL, Lincoln opened with the words, “Hello, Ottawa! Let me begin by thanking the Illinois Central Railroad for their secure coach and plush smoking car. Why, I wasn’t attacked by a single red man all the way from Winnebago! And what a smoker! I swear there was a polished spittoon and a happily spitting citizen every two seats.”

After more than thirty minutes of this, Douglas, who had already been in town for two days, got his turn to speak: “I begin by saying, if you’re here for the debate and need a place to spend the night without bedbugs and with no Canaanites in the next room, you can’t do better than the Owl’s Nest Inn. The mattress is laid under fresh ticking, the bed don’t squeak no matter how many pile on, and Tom the concierge, who is also the mayor in these parts, is only too happy to provide you with bottle of Bronze Age to ensure a good night’s sleep.” Douglas paused for cheers from the locals, and then added triumphantly, “And how about those big, dimpled nudes on the wall in the dining room? That’s real class, and a nice surprise in a hick backwater like this.”

But here Lincoln quickly seized the initiative, remarking to the 4-foot three-inch Douglas, known for his high-rise shoes, “Aren’t you going to plug those elevator slippers you’ve got on, Douglas? They are mighty sharp and give you a towering quality.” This caused his diminutive opponent to blush and lose his train of thought for the rest of the day and throughout the next two debates, until the third duel at Freeport, where he rallied to fight on.

Score after the third debate at Freeport: the reporter for the Philadelphia Press had it Lincoln 2, Douglas 1.  But the scribe from the Cincinnati Enquirer had it Douglas 2, Lincoln 1, and the man from the Louisville Journal had it dead even, with two victories to each candidate and one draw though there had only been three debates. The reader is advised that the scoring system of the day was unscientific and not everyone was polled, so be thankful for TV’s endless live coverage.

Fact: Even more than advertisements and paybacks, the debates consisted of cheap shots, zingers, and “gotcha” attacks.

“Gotcha” moments abounded, and since they added spice to what were too often monotonous and stuffy monologues, no one tried hard to put an end to them. Although the rules of the day forbade cross-talk and questions from one to the other, Douglas interrupted Lincoln an hour and a half into the latter’s opening remarks in the fourth debate at Jonesboro when he suddenly thrust out his sunken chest, pointed his finger at his ramrod-straight adversary, and exclaimed, “You were seen, were you not, sir, one night in Springfield reading a French novel and admiring sepia postcards by candlelight?”  Barely able to recover his composure, Lincoln, after twenty minutes of reflection, shot back, “What I deplore, sir, is your outlandish healthcare policy of forcing girls under the age of twelve to acquire a voodoo mojo hand to ward off evil spirits.” Three hours later, but in a different debate, Douglas struck back like lightning: “Did you ever notice, sir, that a fart traveling a lengthy path to your nose can smell like a really good hamburger?” To which Lincoln, having lost consciousness, could think of no response.

Fact: the candidates delighted in accusing each other of flip-flopping and inconsistency on the issues.

Starting with the third debate and continuing throughout the contests, Lincoln labeled Douglas as a flip-flopper, charging that the Little Giant had been “for indecent exposure before he was against it.” Douglas pushed back hard, stating that Lincoln supported public expectoration as an assemblyman, but became “anti-loogie” when he decided to run for the senate, and maintained his momentum by asserting that the Illinois Rail-Splitter had falsified his life story: instead of being born poor in a log cabin as he claimed, Lincoln had spent his childhood growing up in a “rather fine shed.” Lincoln cleverly defended himself against these charges by pretending not to hear them.

Score after the fifth debate at Galesburg: Record of the score was lost down by the canal and later given up for dead. But everyone tried to remain calm and not reveal their favorites until after the fireworks were over.

Fact: The preponderance of stated “facts” included unforced errors and clueless gaffes.

When Lincoln called Louisiana a “free” state at the second meeting in Freeport, pandemonium erupted even before Douglas could call him on it. When the crowd reaction had subdued somewhat, Douglas fired back with, “I maintain that there’s no Mexican domination of Eastern Texas.” This caused the “fact checkers,” a hastily assembled group of ploughmen and  undertakers, to go into overdrive, and also to burst into derisive laughter. The fact checkers continued giggling and groaning when Lincoln said the Mississippi River ended “somewhere in Georgia,” and lost their heads entirely when Douglas said “plenty of gays” lived in the Dakota Territory. As the checkers pointed out, no one in the nineteenth century chose to become gay, and there were no records of homosexuals living anywhere, except ancient Athens. Perhaps by “gays” Douglas meant someone other than homosexuals, such as libertines or high rollers, but if he did, he should have said so. In the second and third debates, Lincoln referred erroneously to the “female vote,” forgetting that women were too feral and pretty to have been enfranchised. And when Douglas referenced the “green party” he met at his hotel before the seventh and final debate, it was widely assumed he meant he had encountered a Martian in the bar, there being no other “green party” on the premises.

Fact: The Candidates relied heavily on makeup, props, cheap tricks and arranged distractions.

Throughout the debates Douglas, given to tidal sweating, had plenty of capacious hankies on hand to mop his fevered brow, and Lincoln, as yet beardless, slapped on a layer of orange pancake powder before his orations to increase his resemblance to an ax murderer. Some young woman could always be counted on to faint in front of Douglas, who remained nonchalant, stating, “Just give her some space. She’s going to be okay, she just needs some air.” Then as he signaled for a water boy to move in with a reviving cup, he added, “Such things are known to occur in my presence.” Attendants with pitchers of water and smelling salts were on hand for all his speeches, and a swooning female in the front row became a staple of Douglas’s performances.

Lincoln evidently had not thought of feminine fainters, but soon a Western Union Telegram boy began rushing to the fore of the crowds, allegedly bearing a letter from the distraught Mrs.  Lincoln back home in New Salem. Honest Abe, after ceremoniously polishing his glasses (glasses that he was rumored not to need and to use only for effect) then read out a few sentences from wife Mary Todd about how she and the boys were “pining” for him and how she sent “bushels” of her love and wept “barrels” of tears over the sacrifice he made in going out on the road for the “good of the country.”  With Douglas rolling his eyes several times a minute and humming loudly, Lincoln drew his bow over the crowd’s heartstrings until sympathetic onlookers proclaimed him a hero, often violently.

A tactic Douglas used to counter the effect of this in the third, fourth and fifth debates was to stand to one side on the podium while Lincoln spoke, and make a steady display of nonsensical but often bawdy  hand gestures on the grounds that they were “sign language for the hard of hearing.” Seeing Lincoln’s exaggerated expression of dismay at this undignified behavior, the crowd roared approval for the shorter, trickier man. Lincoln failed to win back the crowd’s sympathy even when, during Douglas’s speeches, he performed his trademark parlor trick of peeling an apple while allowing the skin to unfurl in a long spiral over the front of the podium. The stunt impressed many, but it wasn’t enough.

Far from it. Douglas continued to score when a destitute woman showed up at the conclusion of each debate, but before the crowd had dispersed, and said that she needed a home for her and her kids and couldn’t afford one. With meaty arms Douglas embraced her and, while Lincoln cursed silently and smote himself on the thighs with a penknife for not thinking of faking compassion in this manner, handed her over to his staff to “provide for this pitiable but good woman.”

Score at the end of the sixth debate: Red Sox 5, Orioles 7. I told you so, now pay up.

Fact: Tiredness and loss of concentration played a major role in the event.

By the fourth debate, certainly not later than the fifth, both candidates showed signs of severe fatigue, both mental and physical. The fourth featured an uncharacteristically weak conclusion by Lincoln. Cogent and forceful for several hours, he became unsteady on his feet and lightheaded, ending with, “Finally, let me say that Jesus would never do as Mr. Douglas here has done, push a woman for two hours on a swing and then go and invent miniature golf for a box lunch.” This farrago of words caused puzzled looks all around, and the journalists from the Philadelphia Courier and Chicago Tribune could only shake their heads and return to their hotel lobby for more five card hold’em and heavy petting.

Douglas, on the other hand, who with not much foresight added the contents of a trouser flask to his bodily and psychical strain, contrived an even less forceful finale at the fourth encounter while also frothing at the mouth:  “Who am I?” he demanded of the nonplussed crowd. “What am I doing here? They say no man is an island when our allies must take the lead, but until now no man has left the donut hole untouched with a hankering for debutantes.” After dropping that sign of being non compos mentis it seemed all over for the Democratic senator, who looked most perplexed and sweated a bucket. But since no one in the audience knew what insurance limitations made up the “donut hole,” Douglas swayed many minds with his erudition and couldn’t be counted out of the final match-ups.

In fact he was far from finished. During the sixth debate at Charleston, where the crowd had dwindled from a high of above 9,000 at the first encounter at Ottawa, to about 37 infirm and aged, Douglas made the important point that the candidates’ families were off-limits in the discussion. This was in response to Lincoln’s claim that his, Douglas’s, wife possessed “self-lifting automatic skirts” and his son a “tin nose.” He also claimed that Douglas’s three-legged dog Monty was not housebroken. As Douglas fought to discount these odd accusations, he looked over to find Lincoln toying with a yo-yo in one hand and twanging a jaw harp between his clenched teeth with the other. “There you go again,” Douglas finally said as the Illinois Shopkeeper commenced his tenth rendition of “Polly Wolly Doodle.” That modest line wowed the crowd, and from then on Douglas had to be the favorite.

Score after the sixth debate at Quincy, unless it was Charleston: There is no score available, nor could there be from such a dim past.

The seventh and final debate at the Amateur Cemetery and Picnic Grounds in Alton featured ringing oratory from both Lincoln and Douglas. As upwards of 65 farmers and gravediggers gathered before the combatants, down from crowds that numbered 97 or 98 only weeks ago, but all a-cussin’ and a-prayin’ for rhetorical sparring, Lincoln, dodging the flying scooter ride that swept over his lofty head, steadfastly held that the best barbecue was to be found in the Northwest Territory, particularly near Minnesota where the ducks were fattest. “One day barbecued Minnesota mallard will be a byword for great American comfort food,” he claimed, while the skeptical Douglas never wavered in his assertion that nothing compared with the slow-cooked swamp flavor that alligator took on in the wetlands of Florida. “It’s the flamingo bones in the smoker that gives the ‘gator meat that distinctive snap,” he said convincingly several times. “Not to mention the sauce and pickles on the side.”

The verbal jousting continued until evening, when eleven members of the Trood family arrived to bury a number of their dead. But since everyone agreed that the sauce was incomparable, with or without the pickles, Douglas won the final confrontation hands down.

The final score: Douglas over Lincoln 5 to 4, with two debates rained out and not counting. The Outsize Dwarf went on to defeat the Sage of Knob Creek for the senate race, and the rest is history we know: Lincoln got those charming toy logs named after him, and Douglas stepped down as senator after his savage killing spree and series of armed bank break-ins raised an ethical “red flag” in congress. He decided not to run for president either, though he would likely have won in a landslide with his new moniker “Murderer of, by, and for the people.” Instead he toured the Utah and Washington Territories in the company of two female wrestlers, amassing close to five thousand dollars. Within three years, largely due to his efforts, a divided nation went to war. Later everyone became free.


Mike Fowler has been in Defenestration so many times he practically owns stock in the magazine. And by stock, of course, we mean delicious waffles. He’s all about self-promotion these days, so go buy his book.


Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.