Podcasts on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Scholars Rodney Davis and Douglas Wilson discuss their new book on the debates

July 18, 2008

Two renowned scholars at Knox College discuss the historic Lincoln-Douglas Debates and their new book ? the first-ever critical edition of the debate texts ? in a series of podcasts now available on the Knox College website.

The podcasts, "The Real Issue: The Real Debates," feature Rodney Davis and Douglas Wilson, co-directors of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College and co-editors of a new book, "The Lincoln Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition," published this year -- the 150th anniversary of the debates -- by the University of Illinois Press.

Davis and Wilson give historical background on each of the seven debates that took place in the summer and fall of 1858. Competing for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated in Ottawa on August 21, 1858, then in Freeport on August 27, Jonesboro on September 15, Charleston on September 18, Galesburg on October 7, Quincy on October 13 and Alton on October 15.

By examining and comparing all existing debate texts, Wilson and Davis say their book offers "a fuller and more accurate account of the speeches" made by Lincoln and Douglas.

"The speeches were reported by two Chicago newspapers and represented as verbatim accounts," Wilson said. "But these were partisan newspapers that made little pretense at objectivity, and their 'verbatim' reports are markedly divergent."

Davis and Wilson examine the disparities in the two versions of each speech. "This edition differs from its predecessors in attempting, by means of a critical process, to reconcile many of the disparities in the two versions of each speech and to arrive at a more reliable account of what was actually said," they write in the introduction to the book.

Davis and Wilson have taken measures to place the now-legendary debates in their historical context. "First-time readers typically find the Lincoln-Douglas debates to be something quite different from what they expected," they write in the introduction to their book. Since the debates "are replete with references to individuals, events, and circumstances that were then common knowledge but are now unfamiliar," the new edition contains extensive annotation and other aids to the reader.

The podcasts are available at http://www.knox.edu/debates.xml

Davis is an award-winning historian who most recent publications include new editions of "A History of Illinois," originally written in 1854 by former Illinois governor Thomas Ford, and "The Life of Abraham Lincoln," originally written in 1872 by Ward Hill Lamon, a close friend and associate of Lincoln. Davis is Szold Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History, and taught American history at Knox from 1963 to 1997.

Wilson has written two books about Abraham Lincoln that have won the Lincoln Prize ? "Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln" and "Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words." He taught at Knox from 1961 to 1996 and is the George A. Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of English. He also was director of the library for many years and, before becoming involved in Lincoln research, published several books and articles on Thomas Jefferson.

As a team, Davis and Wilson founded the American Studies program at Knox and taught several inter-disciplinary courses. Their 1998 book "Herndon's Informants," was hailed in the New York Review of Books as "a monumental achievement of scholarship." The full text of the book, hundreds of letters written by people who knew Lincoln, is now available online through University of Illinois Press. They also co-edited a new edition of "Herndon's Lincoln," originally written in 1889 by William H. Herndon, Lincoln's law partner in Springfield, Illinois. Davis and Wilson also served as supervising editors for the transcription and annotation of the Abraham Lincoln Papers, a digital archive on the Library of Congress website.

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 45 states and 44 nations. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Rodney Davis, Douglas Wilson in the Lincoln Studies Center
Rodney Davis and Douglas Wilson in the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College