[Copyright © 1958-2004 USPS.]
The modern version of the political debate has changed the traditional debate in the same way that the modern political convention has forever changed the traditional political convention. In both cases, it's not so much a triumph of style over substance as it is the triumph of fear over courage. Neither candidate, especially an incumbent, wants to risk floundering, appearing unknowledgeable or just plain inept with off-the-cuff responses. Some of the politicos' concerns are understandable, but what a loss for the voter. It's a shame that presidential debates weren't incorporated into the U.S. Constitution - then again our Founding Fathers were politicians.
The last great debates were probably the 7 Lincoln-Douglas Senatorial Debates of 1958, at the very least they set the standard, which no one has reached since.
The History of Lincoln Douglas Debate
In 1858, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, an Illinois Democrat, faced a reelection bid. The Republican Party in Illinois nominated Abraham Lincoln to oppose him in the race for United States Senate. When Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates of the issue of slavery in the territories (at that time, many of the western states were still territories,) Douglas accepted and named seven cities in Illinois to hold the debates.Click to read more about the Lincoln Douglas Debate, from a high school history student's perspective.
While both Lincoln and Douglas were opposed to slavery, only Lincoln actively opposed the practice on moral grounds. Douglas argued that the issue of slavery would die down and eventually go away. Lincoln firmly believed that slavery was morally reprehensible and should be actively barred from the territories, although he did not advocate abolishing slavery in the southern states at this point.
Although Douglas won the seat in the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln gained a place in the national spotlight that would later help him win the presidency of the United States. His stirring speeches against slavery during the Lincoln Douglas debates achieved national recognition and serve as an inspiration to the statesmen and debaters of today.
[© 2000 National Christian Forensics and Communications Association]
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 is an excellent site, with most of the seven debates available for reading, courtesy of the newspapers of the day.