These lengthy rhetorical bouts tested the endurance of the audiences and the candidates. Rather than inspiring memorable words, they proved for the most part an embarrassment. The encounters were brutally sarcastic, featuring highly personal attacks rather than elevated discourse. And while they were the first major political forums transcribed by stenographers, the debates were not even accurately published. The texts we know today were massaged by partisan editors eager to make their candidate sound less garbled. Newspapers of the era were openly connected to major parties — imagine Fox or MSNBC editing debate tapes before broadcast.
Still, no friendly editing could disguise the debaters’ shortcomings, including their open prejudice. Both men used the N-word. Douglas, who voiced horror at the sight of African American leader Frederick Douglass riding around town in a carriage driven by a white man, maintained that American democracy was created only “for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.” While Lincoln insisted that the Declaration of Independence applied to all, he also descended into bigotry, acknowledging the “physical difference” between whites and blacks. In the fourth debate, he went further.
“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” he declared in Charleston, Ill., to robust cheers, “nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white people.” It was not the future emancipator’s finest hour.