Prof. Allen Guelzo reviews book on Lincoln-Douglas debates in Wall Street Journal

Professor of Civil War era studies Allen Guelzo reviewed John Burt's book, Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism, in the Wall Street Journal on February 15.

From the Journal:

The Lincoln-Douglas debates easily rank somewhere in the top-10 most easily recognized events in American history—although the reason isn't entirely obvious. They were, after all, simply a series of speeches delivered by the two chief rivals for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat, conducted outdoors in the dry heat of a late Illinois summer and the damp chill of its early fall. Each session lasted three hours and was delivered with no form of artificial amplification for the thousands of citizens who turned out to listen. Worst of all, no one in 1858 would be casting a vote for either Lincoln or Douglas. U.S. senators were still chosen by state legislatures; at best, Illinois's residents would be voting for state-legislative proxies for Honest Abe or the Little Giant.

Still, John Burt isn't wrong to see in the great debates of 1858 "part of the unwritten political philosophical tradition that has shaped American political practices." The debates are indeed a Rosetta Stone, cluttered with a good deal of mundane stuff but holding the key to the central dilemma of politics in a democracy: How, in a political order where the people are equals and the ultimate source of authority, do you prevent the will of a majority from satisfying its own interests at the expense of others, regardless of truth and right?


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