When political upstart Abraham Lincoln challenged Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic stalwart, for his U.S. Senate seat in Illinois in 1858, the campaign resulted in the Lincoln-Douglas debates — seven meetings of the candidates that became the most famous discussion in American political history. The first debate occurred in Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, 1858, almost exactly 160 years ago.
Two days after that debate, newspaper readers were able to read almost every word that was uttered during those three hours that were given to each of the debates.
With no modern recording devices at hand for journalists to use, how did this happen?
The answer lies with three now-forgotten journalists: Robert Roberts Hitt (The Chicago Press and Tribune), and Henry Binmore, and James Sheridan (The Chicago Times). They were the pioneers of a new method of reporting called “phonographic reporting,” according to historian Harold Holzer, who edited and wrote the introduction for The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text.
In other words, the reporters used short-hand. Both sides set up a system whereby the reporters’ short-hand could be transcribed and published as quickly as possible after each debate. Holzer writes:
The Lincoln-Douglas debates were the first sustained political encounter to inspire so-called “phonographic” reporting, and in this milestone lay the key to their early and enduring fame, as well as their ultimate distortion. (p. 10)
Holzer gives credit to the reporters for being thoroughly professional and noting what Lincoln and Douglas said as best they could. But the readers of the Press and Tribune, a Republican (Lincoln) newspaper, often read a different version of the speeches from those printed in the Times and other Democratic (Douglas) newspapers. That’s because the partisanship of the editors led them to clean up the language and syntax of the candidate they favored and to leave intact the garbled ramblings of their opponent. Their actions set off a century-and-a-half debate among scholars about who said what and how it was said.
In truth, neither candidate filled the air with profound truths or soaring rhetoric, and reading through the speeches today is a hard slog. It is better to read about the debates than to read the debates themselves.
Still, we have three journalists to thank for creating a near-perfect record of this most important event in the life of the Republic.
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