Looking Back at a Handshake Across the Aisle

The following article was taken from the program notes for The Rivalry, a radio-play which will be presented at the Norton Center on Friday, February 10:

The buzzwords during the early days of the Obama administration – “reconciliation” and “bipartisanship” – have faded into memory. Let’s hope history soon repeats itself – and takes a few lessons from the friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

Friendship? Wasn’t the political rivalry of “Honest Abe” and “The Little Giant” one of the best-documented in American history? Lincoln and Douglas famously faced each other in seven debates during the1858 senatorial race in Illinois. Douglas – the incumbent Democratic senator – was a national figure. Lincoln had served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. The three-hour long debates were well documented: numerous reporters took down the candidates’ words in shorthand before converting the texts for publication in newspapers across the country. The candidates were also well remembered by the crowds of 15,000 to 20,000 who cheered, booed, and heckled at each event. Lincoln, the underdog at the start of the debates, emerged with a very different public image by the time the candidates finished up.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates set a standard of excellence in American political discourse that has never been equaled. The contest helped Lincoln to win the popular vote but it was Douglas who was elected by the state legislature to continue as an Illinois senator. The debates had longer-lasting consequences. Douglas’ remarks on popular sovereignty later caused the Democratic Party to split along regional lines – the first steps towards creating the Confederacy. The debates spotlighted Abraham Lincoln’s shrewd thinking and brought him to national prominence, setting the stage for the 1860 presidential race and Lincoln’s eventual election.
What most fourth-grade Social Studies curriculum materials don’t teach about the Lincoln-Douglas debates is what came after. Lincoln and Douglas put principle above personal feeling and worked for the stability of a country they both loved. They formed an alliance to preserve the Union. In a 19th century version of “the handshake across the aisle,” Douglas held Lincoln’s hat at his Inauguration and escorted Mrs. Lincoln to the First Inaugural Ball. Shortly after, Douglas worked hard to confirm for Lincoln the loyalty that Illinois citizens held to the Union.

More than 150 years later, the power and meaning of their words can be experienced onstage in Norman Corwin’s play The Rivalry.  It draws on the words and message of this political rivalry turned friendship. In an essay entitled “The Tangled Weave,” Corwin expressed his conviction that the inclusion of the play’s Epilogue – depicting the outcome of the debates – was necessary because without it, the full story of Lincoln and Douglas would not be told.

The structure of political discourse might sound like dull theatrics but not when drawn directly from the words of these two candidates. The words of Lincoln — who was well known for telling a droll yarn to illustrate a point — are full of playful banter. Douglas often comes off as a passionate showman as well as statesman and patriot. The Rivalry brings these men to the stage not just to illuminate fundamental issues about freedom, government, and equality. Corwin brings together their shared humanity and willingness to put principles above any personal issues there may have been between them.

The Rivalry is a heartbreaking reminder of what’s missing from today’s political scene. When L.A. Theatre Works first staged the play in the fall of 2008, the United States was amidst a brutal presidential election campaign in which a tall, eloquent man whose political experience was questioned towered over a well-respected, sometimes blustering political veteran. But unlike the Illinois senate race of 1858, the eloquent and principled presidential candidate of 2008 was a well-educated, African-American man. And this man claimed Abraham Lincoln as a hero. Unlike what happened between Lincoln and Douglas, the handshake that extended by Barack Obama to John McCain on the night the Senate voted on the financial rescue package was rebuffed. Three years later, the Senate is split solidly along party lines; the power of the American Tea Party Movement grows as its members rally for smaller government, fewer taxes, and more individual freedoms; and the recent wrangling over the budget was one of the most contentious crises of modern politics.

The legacy of Douglas’ gesture to Lincoln seems to have been lost.

~ Elizabeth Bennett, Dramaturge for The Rivalry

Categories: A Closer Look

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