David Frum

12.11.12

David's Bookclub: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

If Spielberg's Lincoln whetted your appetite for re-enactment of Civil War politics, let me recommend an audiobook I listened to last month: the performance of the Lincoln-Douglas debates by David Straithairn (as Abraham Lincoln) and Richard Dreyfuss (as Stephen A. Douglas).

Straithairn, who played Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, summons up the nasal voice of Lincoln. Dreyfuss enthusiastically deploys the Foghorn Leghorn manner of the mid-19th century pre-microphone politician.

And to hear the debates conveys their meaning and power in a way the printed page does not.

Listening to them, you become intensely aware of the flow of events through the summer and fall of 1858. Douglas begins strong and commanding; Lincoln, less sure of himself, more prone to be drawn into wasting his time rebutting Douglas' charges.

But as the debates proceed, the momentum moves to Lincoln. Douglas' race-baiting becomes wilder, uglier, and more incoherent. (Dreyfus articulates these words with lip-smacking, contemptuous gusto; in his performance, he conjures up not only Douglas, but the imagined mid-19th century audience that could have heard these words with approval and enjoyment.) By the end, Douglas is denying that the words of the Declaration - "all men are created equal" - can have any application to non-white people at all. The men of 1776, he insists over and over, may have written, "all men," he insists, but they were thinking only "on a white basis." Lincoln has entrapped him into arguing not against Lincoln, but against the English language.

Meanwhile Lincoln's logic remorselessly devours Douglas' political position. One of the great questions between the two men is the debate, which of them is the disturber of the peace? Douglas hurls this accusation again and again at Lincoln. It is Lincoln who is bringing about a "crisis of the house divided." The Union has been part-slave and part-free since the beginning, Douglas asserts. Why cannot it remain that way forever?

Lincoln's answer is to confront Douglas repeatedly with the implications of the Dred Scott case. In Dred Scott, the Supreme Court declared a federal constitutional right to slave property. To uphold that right, the Supreme Court overturned the federal law barring slavery from federal territory. Implication: the same Supremacy clause that decrees that a federal constitutional right trumps federal law, also decrees that a federal constitutional right trumps state, including even state constitutions. Dred Scott, insists Lincoln, is only the prelude to the next case, the one in which the Southern-dominated Supreme Court will find a federal constitutional right to hold slaves even in the formerly free states.

Douglas squirms to find a way out of this trap. He cannot do it, in large part because of Lincoln's gift for reducing complex ideas to the simplest language without any injustice to the ideas' complexity. It's a remarkably difficult thing to do, but Lincoln does it again and again and again. It's an amazing thing to hear re-enacted, in real-time, by actors who enter so whole-heartedly and intelligently into the spirit of their roles.