Wednesday, February 11, 2009

How 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates changed politics

Innovation in Lincoln-Douglas debates

The communication revolution has moved so swiftly that new ways to communicate seem to pop up almost weekly, in a field where innovation once seemed to take decades. In my time in the newspaper business the transformation has been astonishing, moving from the hot type of the 19th century -- still in use in the 1960s -- to cold type, then several iterations that have taken us to pagination and beyond. I've used huge old teletype machines with paper punch-tape, twix machines, telecopiers, faxes, desktop computers the size of a Buick front end, IBM Model 25s with, as we used to joke, a chain drive and steam propulsion, to laptops and handheld devices that weigh less than a stick of hot type weighed when I first got into print journalism. Now e-mails and blogs are becoming old media, with an explosion of new ways to reach people.

I thought about that while reading the Winter 2009 issue of "Smithsonian," which focuses on President Lincoln and includes a fascinating look at the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, which transformed American politics. The two candidates weren't running for president then. It was all about an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate, two years before the 1860 election when Republican Lincoln would defeat Democrat Stephen Douglas. But Douglas won re-election to the Senate while, at the same time, Lincoln gained a national following.

The debates were held in seven places around Illinois between Aug. 21 and Oct. 15, 1858, as the two debated about the future of slavery -- and as Lincoln proved to people he could stand up to Douglas, who was presumed in advance to be the far better debater. In the early going he probably was but by the end, Lincoln was making his mark.

What struck me is how those three-hour debates changed media coverage of politics. Fergus Bordewich relates what happened in his story "Face the Nation":

In 1858, innovation was turning what would otherwise have been a local contest into one followed from Mississippi to Maine. Stenographers trained in shorthand recorded the candidates' words. Halfway through each debate, runners were handed the stenographers' notes; they raced for the next train to Chicago, converting shorthand into text during the journey and producing a transcript ready to be typeset and telegraphed to the rest of the country as soon as it arrived. "The combination of shorthand, the telegraph and the railroad changed everything," says Allen C. Guelzo, author of 'Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America.' "It was unprecedented. Lincoln and Douglas knew they were speaking to the whole nation. It was like JFK in 1960 coming to grips with the presence of the vast new television audience."

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