Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Veteran and the Supplicant: On the Methods and Implications of Modes of Address During the Freeport Debate

Beneath the cut is an examination of the modes of address used by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in what is perhaps the most important debate in the series of debates they undertook in their respective campaigns for the Senate seat in Illinois. Specifically, it looks at the potential implications of Lincoln's use of "Judge" and "Judge Douglas" as a method of address, and Douglas' use of "Black Republicans" when speaking to and about Lincoln.

It's pretty boring stuff if you're not a) into the Civil War, particularly the preceding politics, and/or b) into rhetoric and how stuff gets named and what that means. In other words, you will probably not want to read this.

Although the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during the campaign for the Senate seat in the election of 1858 for Illinois were often quite similar, one in particular has been chosen for analysis due to the development of what would come to be called the Freeport Doctrine. During the course of the debate, Lincoln demanded of Douglas whether or not a territory could vote on whether or not to allow slavery in its constitution - as per Douglas’ conception of popular sovereignty - or if territories were bound to the obiter dictum delivered at the conclusion of the Dred Scott case, in which Chief Justice Taney claimed that neither the states nor the territories had a constitutional right to bar slavery from existing in any fashion.

Douglas responded to Lincoln with what has become known as the Freeport Doctrine, in which he argued that any territory could bar slavery from existing if it so chose merely by way of the adoption of laws and their enforcement; if a state or territory legislated laws that barred slavery, or if the local population’s law enforcement agencies refused to uphold slavery, then slavery could not exist in that territory. In the words of Douglas;
“It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations.”

The Freeport Doctrine was an elegant solution to what Lincoln doubtless believed to be an irresolvable conflict for Douglas.

While the historical high point of the Freeport Debate may have been the development of the Freeport Doctrine, it is but a pale shade of the debate in its entirety, in which each man demonstrated their full rhetorical strength. Douglas’ flashy, Washington, D.C.-tinged and highly educated tone, which he utilizes to appear as though he is speaking from a position of authority in which he knows not merely which policies are best but how - and has the power - to enact them, contrasted heavily with Lincoln’s homespun and cordial attitude, which caused him to appear as though he were supplicating humbly to a greater power in the hopes of great social change. The sensibilities and beliefs - as well as ethics - of each candidate come out strongly in their respective speaking sections, and I feel quite clearly in the fashion that each of the men chooses to address the other.

In the course of externally researching perspectives on the Freeport Debate, a common consensus seems to emerge between the impeccable logic and politeness of Lincoln, contrasted with the ravings and crassness of Douglas. While it is true that Douglas is more prone to insults and personal attacks than Lincoln (if only in raw quantity), I am not entirely convinced that Lincoln is deserving of the high pedestal upon which his speaking segments seem to have been placed by contemporary and historical critics, or that he was any more noble in his efforts at Freeport than Douglas; rather, it would seem to me that Lincoln is equally as deceitful and deliberate as Douglas, albeit in a substantially more subtle fashion. That is not to say that Douglas was incapable of subtlety - indeed, what seems to be his crowning achievement in the Freeport Debate was his ability to ensnare Lincoln into choosing party loyalty and reliability or personal integrity.

However, a perhaps more proper place to begin an examination of both Lincoln and Douglas’ rhetorical methods might best be the fashion in which they addresses one another; always, Lincoln refers to Douglas as either “[the] Judge” or “Judge Douglas.” Topically, this appears a cordiality and a polite reverence for Douglas’ station as a legal authority. However, it also serves a more subliminally coercive purpose; to alienate the audience from Douglas. Merely by referring to Douglas exclusively by his title, Lincoln paints him not only as an authority figure but rather a figure displaced from the common man listening to the speech, as presumably, the average citizen of 19th century Freeport Illinois had a far lesser social standing than that of a judge. Further, Lincoln is also removing Douglas from the pool of even the social and economic elite; while lawyers and doctors and perhaps even politicians are arguably seen as being higher on the social ladder, surely a judge is even higher yet.

This device of Lincoln’s, while difficult to actually determine the efficacy of, served if nothing else to draw a line between the two candidates; Lincoln, a lawyer, on one side, and Douglas, a judge and senator, on the other. Referring to Douglas as a judge also draws Douglas as a figure that has been involved in Washington and in the legal system for some time, as both positions he held infer a great deal of experience and time spent. As was seen in the presidential election of 2008, a candidate of change can rally their base in opposition of the established order, which when seen in the context of a new face, can appear as confined in their methods, dated, and possibly even corrupt, and can propel the candidate of change into office far faster than the candidate of experience and knowledge – provided the political climate favors change.

It should here be noted that this is a contemporary perspective concerning social status; in modern, American society, individuals that have attained the status of judge tend to be looked upon with more reverence and respect than would, for example, a sales clerk or carpenter be. Even were members of American society in the mid-19th century possessing of such high social standing as judge not given the reverence that they are today, Lincoln’s insistence on the title drew a clear line between, if nothing else, the economic status of Douglas and the typical citizen.

Although I was unable to determine whether or not Douglas was aware of what Lincoln was doing by referring to him as Judge Douglas, either intentionally on Lincoln’s part or not, Douglas seems to have played directly into Lincoln’s hands when his turn to speak came. Douglas’ arguments, while brilliantly phrased and structured, tended to refer to his experience as a legislator and his knowledge of the players in Washington, D.C.; although they make clear to the audience that Douglas knew the inner workings of both parties quite well (Douglas even going so far as to detail the political alliances made to, in Douglas’ words, “Abolitionize the two parties” (p. 18)), his responses also demonstrate to the audience that he is a politician and not a typical citizen.

Douglas himself wields the sword of labeling quite effectively during his speaking segments, although he utilizes it in a substantially different way. Lincoln’s use of “Judge Douglas” places the spotlight on Douglas as an individual, and not a member of the collective entity of the Democrat Party, which can have the effect of causing Douglas’ decisions, policies, and beliefs to be his in exclusivity - which is exactly the opposite of the effect that Douglas himself created when speaking against Lincoln. Instead of creating a rhetorical device of a form of hero worship as Lincoln did, Douglas instead chose to frame Lincoln as a mere - but inextricable - extension of the Republican Party.

More specifically, Douglas framed Lincoln as an extension of the Black Republican Party, a phrase which he used more than twenty times during the course of his ninety minute speaking segment, and in doing so he accomplished a number of interesting things. Chiefly, he hammered the point that the Republican Party was attempting to grant universal and equal rights, on a national scale, to blacks, and by calling the Republican Party the Black Republican Party he created a label that would endure with the audience and clearly link black rights with the Republican Party. The label of Black Republican is an important one due to the fashion in which Douglas referred to Lincoln; that is, generally, he did not, instead referring to the Republican Party as a whole rather than Lincoln as an individual. However, it should be noted that while Douglas avoids mentioning Lincoln by name overmuch, he does so in a couple of particular instances - most notably, as seen below, when Douglas is attempting to paint Lincoln as a liar or hypocrite.

In order to effectively understand why Douglas attempted to tie Lincoln to what he called the Black Republican Party, it is first necessary to examine the established Republican Party platform and some of the responses Lincoln made to questions asked by Douglas. The Republican platform, and some of the resolutions that it passed, consisted of often strong abolitionist language as can be seen in the resolutions passed by the Rockford Convention of 1854 that Douglas implied was the primary platform of the party;
“ restore Kansas and Nebraska to the position of Free Territories; to repeal and entirely abrogate the Fugitive Slave Law; to restrict slavery to those States in which it exists; to prohibit the admission of any more Slave States in the Union; to exclude slavery from all the Territories over which the General Government has exclusive jurisdiction; and to resist the acquisition of any more territories, unless the introduction of slavery therein forever shall have been prohibited.”
Importantly, the resolution also contained the following clause; “...we will support no man for office under the General or State Government who is not positively committed to these principles.”

With this platform in mind, it is now necessary to examine some of the responses made by Lincoln in his first speaking session, in which he answers a series of questions that Douglas presented to him, presumably, during the debate prior to the one held in Freeport. These questions seem to have been pulled specifically from the resolution passed at the Rockford Convention; for example, question one asks, “I desire to know whether Lincoln to-day stands, as he did in 1854, in favor of the unconditional repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law?” Lincoln’s response: “I do not now, nor ever did, stand in favor of the unconditional repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law.” Another example; in question three, Douglas asks “I want to know whether he stands pledged against the admission of a new State into the Union with such a Constitution as the people of that State may see fit to make?” Lincoln’s reply: “I do not stand pledged against the admission of a new State into the Union with such a Constitution as the people of that State may see fit to make.” (p. 1-2)

As can be seen even in this small sampling of responses from Lincoln, he clearly is not a politician terribly concerned with towing the party line at the cost of everything else; rather, he has reasoned, thoughtful, and careful responses to the questions (which are later explained in greater detail) that Douglas presented, and it is precisely for this reason that Douglas seeks to tie Lincoln to what he refers to as the Black Republican Party. Douglas is attempting, I believe, to distance Lincoln from his own answers in the eyes of the audience so that the more radical platform of the Republican Party - which may have not been entirely palatable for citizens of mid-19th century Illinois - were also the policies of Lincoln himself.

Clearly, Lincoln’s responses are substantially different than what would be expected were he a politician that heavily identified with the Republican Party as framed by Douglas. It would initially seem that Lincoln’s responses might undermine what Douglas was attempting by referring to Lincoln as a member of the party, but rather, it appears that the entire machination was rather a shrewd logic trap laid out by Douglas, as can be seen towards the end of Douglas’ speaking section. After laying out the platforms built by two separate Republican conventions, Douglas hones in on a particular stipulation found therein; that, as quoted above, “...we will support no man for office under the General or State Government who is not positively committed to these principles.”

Douglas demands of the audience:
“Thus you see every member from your Congressional District voted for Mr. Lincoln, and they were pledged not to vote for him unless he was committed to the doctrine of no more Slave States, the prohibition of slavery in the Territories, and the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law. Mr. Lincoln tells you to-day that he is not pledged to any such doctrine. Either Mr. Lincoln was then committed to those propositions, or Mr. Turner violated his pledges to you when he voted for him. Either Lincoln was pledged to each one of those propositions, or else every Black Republican Representative from this Congressional District violated his pledge of honor to his constituents by voting for him.”
(p. 21)

Although Lincoln responds in his closing segment eloquently and effectively, explaining that “...if he will find any of these persons who will tell him anything inconsistent with what I say now, I will resign, or rather retire from the race, and give him no more trouble,” (p. 25) it is difficult to determine on which side the audience will fall. On one hand, Lincoln was quite clear in his opening speech that “If any interrogatories which I shall answer I go beyond the scope of what is within these platforms, it will be perceived that no one is responsible but myself,” (p. 1) suggesting that he is not necessarily entirely in favor of all of the policies of the Republican platform. Conversely, this also suggests that either Lincoln does not care for the platform of the party and will act in what he presumably believes to be in the best interest of the country, or that he deceived the Republicans in order to secure his nomination. What makes this exchange interesting is that the issue would likely not have even arisen had not Douglas forced the issue, and it gave Douglas an opportunity to lay against Lincoln claims of deception that he may not have had otherwise, or alternatively, that the Republican Party is willing to sell its values out in exchange for a strong enough candidate. This is significant because, often, even mere claims and of untrustworthiness and deception can have a profound impact on how an individual may view a public figure like Lincoln. This can be seen in widespread distrust of Al Gore during his presidential campaign due to his mere affiliation with President Clinton over the Monica Lewinski scandal.

Lincoln’s insistence on the labeling of Douglas as Judge Douglas may have served him poorly in the end, as it is entirely possible - and perhaps likely, given the election results - that the constituency preferred a candidate of experience, clout and otherness (possibly the constituency preferred to elect someone they considered their better to lead and represent them?) than the homespun and relatable nature of Lincoln, whom went to seemingly great lengths in his rhetoric to establish how like the common citizen he was.

Ultimately, it would seem that the electorate was more persuaded and found more value in the character and words of Douglas, as he was re-elected to his Senate seat. Although Douglas’ Freeport Doctrine - and, by extension, popular sovereignty - seems to have been widely regarded as the superior policy regarding slavery in mid-19th century Illinois and perhaps the deciding factor in the election, his methods of delivery and discourse must have been equally as critical as these were the engines by which he convinced the electorate. Regardless of how strong or compelling any given policy may be, it must have an effective speaker in order to convince the masses to enact it - lest it fall to the floor to linger among the doubtless thousands of well-conceived but poorly voiced policy plans and ideas that will never see the light of legislation.

A Note on Works Cited:
All quotations and thoughts used above are based on the transcript of the Freeport Debate, found at:
1., Political Debates Between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas,
Additionally, notes taken in class as well as the Wikipedia entry on the Freeport Doctrine (located at were consulted for date and name accuracy.

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