'Honest Abe' wasn't above raucous debates, savvy politics

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Story highlights

  • The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates were short on substance but long on "sound bites," Harold Holzer writes
  • Abraham Lincoln ran an aggressive presidential campaign, secretly purchasing a newspaper to help his bid
  • In the end, he and political rival Stephen A. Douglas made peace for the sake of the country

Lincoln scholar and author Harold Holzer has written and edited dozens of books on President Abraham Lincoln, including his most recent book, "Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion." Explore America's most dramatic presidential elections on CNN's "Race for the White House" Sundays at 9 p.m. ET. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)"It's another 1860," some TV pundits have been exclaiming in their analyses of the raucous, mud-slinging presidential debates of 2016.

"It's Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas all over again."
    Well, not quite.
    Such comparisons conflate the long and turbulent rivalry between "Long Abe" and "The Little Giant," which originated on the brutal one-on-one political stump in rural Illinois in the 1830s, and endured in enmity for another 30 years.
    Douglas, a Democrat, favored Jacksonian economic policies, which stressed decentralization of banking as a way to spur opportunity for farmers. He also supported the Mexican-American War, even if the newly acquired territory it yielded might become ripe for slavery.
    Harold Holzer
    Lincoln, a Whig (long before he became a Republican), opposed the war fiercely (possibly to his political detriment) and advocated not only for a national bank, but for "internal improvements" -- the building of roads, canals, bridges and rail lines, or what today we would call "infrastructure."
    These divisions were more than enough to fuel the Lincoln-Douglas competition, during which Douglas rose from Congress to the U.S. Senate, while Lincoln, whose national experience was limited to a single term in the House, limped afterward into a self-imposed political obscurity back home that lasted for almost five years.
    Then, in 1854, with the slavery issue roiling politics, Douglas, now a powerful Senate committee chairman, engineered passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The new law gave white voters in new Western territories the right to vote for themselves on whether to admit or ban slavery, with no voice, of course, given to enslaved people themselves.
    "Aroused," he said, as he never had been before, Lincoln came roaring back into the fray, arguing in speech after speech that slavery must be contained where it then existed and "placed on the course of ultimate extinction."

    19th-century debate zingers

    Lincoln and Douglas emerged as national spokesmen for these intractably different viewpoints, and their clash climaxed during the Illinois Senate campaign of 1858 -- with Lincoln challenging Douglas' bid for a third term -- and the seven three-hour debates that "set the prairies on fire."
    The first debates ever transcribed by stenographers, the marathons were printed in newspapers throughout the state, achieving a breathtaking immediacy that seemed as revolutionary in its time as today's tweets and at-home access to live debate telecasts.
    The debates were actually rather short on substance (slavery and conspiracy theories dominated), but were long on what today we would call "sound bites." On one occasion, Douglas accused Lincoln of hypocrisy on the issue of temperance, charging that he had once operated a "grocery" store that sold hard liquor.
    If so, Lincoln drawled in retort, Douglas was surely his best customer.
    When Douglas added that Lincoln was disingenuously two-faced on the slavery issue (secretly favoring black equality), Lincoln famously shot back, "If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"
    Lincoln, in turn, argued that Douglas violated the spirit of the founding fathers by denying people of color their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and in fact was part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to make slavery national and permanent.
    Energized, the Republicans won the Illinois popular vote that year, but Senate elections then were decided in state legislatures, where Democrats retained a substantial advantage.
    Douglas won re-election, and Lincoln, beaten, worried that he might sink into obscurity again, this time perhaps forever.

    Honest Abe's political savvy

    But Lincoln had a genius for what today we call public relations, and he soon dove back into the fight -- this time with his eye on the biggest prize of all, the presidency, with Douglas looming as his likeliest opponent.
    Lincoln cannily organized support among Western Republicans, secretly bought a German-language newspaper to sing his praises to immigrant voters who might tilt such swing states as Illinois and Indiana, made a smash New York oratorical debut at Cooper Union in February 1860, and saw to the publication of those 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, with friendly editing by Lincoln himself.
    The book became a best-seller. When the Republican National Committee chose Chicago as the site of the nominating convention, Lincoln became the home-state favorite son -- the right man in the right place when the candidate expected to win the nod, U.S. Sen. William H. Seward of New York, faltered on the first ballot.
    Two votes later, the lesser-known Lincoln was the Republican nominee.
    Meanwhile, Douglas' march to the Democratic nomination hit a wall. Unlike Republicans, Democrats required their nominees to achieve two-thirds of the delegate votes. At its riotous convention in pro-slavery Charleston, South Carolina, Douglas failed to get the votes he needed. He simply wasn't conservative enough.
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    Facing stalemate, Southerners walked out, started their own wing of the Democratic Party and nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge as their candidate. Douglas became the nominee of the Northern Democrats, while moderates, fearful that a Lincoln victory might split the country permanently, nominated John Bell under a new banner called the Constitutional Union Party.
    In the ensuing four-way race, Lincoln was almost unable to lose. On Election Day, he swept the North and won handily in the Electoral College, even though he amassed less than 40% of the popular vote.

    When presidential candidates were silent

    Might such a split divide the Republican Party in 2016, as it divided the Democrats in 1860? Certainly, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that if the upcoming GOP convention renounces a popular favorite, another schism might roil the party as it did when Lincoln ran.
    And don't forget that in the years since, Theodore Roosevelt, George Wallace, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader all mounted third-party challenges that arguably changed the outcome of a national race.
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    Is the emotion as high, and are the divisions as wide, today, as they were in 1860? Probably not, though we like to imagine so. But things are certainly boiling over, and at each presidential debate, as stakes widen and opportunities narrow, the drama only intensifies.
    But remember: As famous as the Lincoln-Douglas debates became, both in their own time and in American history, they took place during a Senate race, not a presidential campaign, and there was no sequel when the two protagonists ran against each other for the White House.
    Politics may have been tumultuous in the 19th century, but back then, presidential candidates simply did not campaign directly for the White House, much less face each other one-on-one in such undignified encounters.
    Lincoln stayed home and said nothing during the 1860 campaign. Douglas made one half-hearted campaign swing, using the excuse that he needed to visit his ailing mother.
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    And therein lies what one of this year's presidential candidates might call a "huuuuuge" difference: the tradition of silent presidential candidates!
    Here is another: When Lincoln stood outside the U.S. Capitol on March 4, 1861, to deliver his inaugural address, he removed his already famous stovepipe hat and looked helplessly for a place to set it down while he spoke.
    From behind him came a hand and an offer. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, whom Lincoln had defeated for the presidency, volunteered to hold his lifelong rival's topper while the new President took the oath of office.
    It was a gesture that helped unite the North to face the crisis yet to come.
    Will someone hold the new president's hat on January 20, 2017 -- symbolically, of course? Time will tell.