When Abraham Lincoln concluded his series of debates with Stephen A. Douglas in the fall of 1858, he lost no time in acquiring copies of the newspapers that had carried verbatim reports of the principal speeches and compiling a scrapbook of the campaign. For the texts of the debates at his seven joint appearances with Douglas, he used clippings from the leading Republican newspaper, the Chicago Press and Tribune, for his own remarks and the Democratic Chicago Times for those of his opponent. His unstated assumption was that these zealously partisan papers presented the most reliable accounts of the respective speakers. Arranging the speeches in chronological order and providing a few sentences of handwritten continuity as needed, he made some marginal corrections in his own speeches but left Douglas's alone.

At one point, he substituted a clipping from an unnamed paper, duly noting in the margin: "This extract from Mr. Lincoln's Peoria Speech of 1854, was read by him in the Ottawa debate but was not reported fully or accurately in either the Times or Press & Tribune. It is inserted now as necessary to a complete report of the debate."[1] As is clear from the tone and form of address he adopted in this note, Lincoln had in mind for his scrapbook something more than a personal memento. A few inquiries by prospective publishers came to nothing, but when the Republican party of Ohio made a proposal to reprint the texts of the debates a year later, Lincoln was prepared and promptly sent his scrapbook by courier to Columbus to provide copy for the printer. The text that was set from Lincoln's scrapbook became, in the spring of 1860, a prime document in the presidential campaign that sent him to the White House. Subsequently, of course, the widely reprinted debates became one of the most celebrated documents in American history, and until the mid-twentieth century, the 1860 text was the only one available. Page  [End Page 70]

The scrapbook itself was largely forgotten and was little regarded even by those who knew of its role. John G. Nicolay, Lincoln's personal secretary and biographer, although he had himself been the courier who carried it to Columbus, thought so little of its importance that he advised his partner, John Hay, that he did not think it was worth $50. [2] Lincoln scholars in the twentieth century rediscovered its existence, and the editors of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (1953) used it as the copy-text for their rendering of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It thus occurs that Lincoln's scrapbook has been the primary document behind every text of the famous debates that has been published since 1858. Although a number of editors along the way have duly consulted the original newspaper texts to check the accuracy of the 1860 edition and the completeness of the scrapbook clippings, Lincoln has largely succeeded in being the principal editor of his own debates with Douglas.

Harold Holzer has now come forward with an entirely new edition of the debates, based not on Lincoln's scrapbook but on a distinctly different set of texts and a novel theory of authenticity. [3] Holzer employs the texts from the same two Chicago newspapers Lincoln used, but instead of using the Press and Tribune for Lincoln's speeches and the Times for Douglas's, he reverses the procedure, printing Lincoln's speeches as they appeared in the Democratic Times and Douglas's from the Republican Press and Tribune. In printing the opposition texts and making them widely available, Holzer has performed a rare feat in Lincoln studies—bringing to light for the first time documents of great interest and importance that shed real light on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

It has long been assumed that the editors of both papers took pains to present the remarks of their candidate in the best possible light, smoothing over the rough spots and providing clarity and continuity as needed while giving the text of the opposing candidate short shrift. Holzer's theory is simply that these opposition texts, in not having been polished and improved by the friendly editors, are closer to what the speakers actually said. The differences between the two sets of texts is considerable, and Holzer goes so far as to say that the Lincoln-Douglas debates "have largely been lost to us" because of the partisan press. Page  [End Page 71]

In an effort to showcase the debaters to the best advantage, the raw power and unexpurgated spontaneity of the speakers were permanently sanitized by partisan stenographers, transcribers, and editors. Together they reproduced the speeches and rebuttals as they perceived their equally partisan readers wanted them preserved. Inevitably, their approved (and improved) versions of the debates became the basis of the permanent historical archive. It would be hyperbolic to suggest that the original record was suppressed, but inaccurate to deny that it was enhanced.

Holzer insists that the debate texts as published and reprinted from the scrapbook were "sanitized," as undoubtedly they were. What he does not investigate is the question of the extent to which they were sanitized, and whether the resulting text that the friendlier paper produced was more of a distortion than that offered by the opposition. His offering the opposition texts as more authentic than their counterparts is partly based on certain assumptions about the editorial process that prevailed in 1858. "On the Democratic side, supportive editors apparently gave a careful critical reading to Douglas transcripts, deleting ungrammatical sentences, improving stylistic transgressions, plugging up run-on sentences, and extending fragmentary thoughts ... and in the interest of time, left Lincoln's portion alone." The Press and Tribune is accused of "performing comparable cosmetic surgery" on Lincoln's speeches and "printing the Douglas texts verbatim." This leads logically to Holzer's arresting conclusion "that only Democrats got to read the unexpurgated Lincoln, and only Republicans the unedited Douglas."

This is an intriguing theory and, given the wide differences between the two versions, would, if accepted, make for a very different picture of these important debates. "Tribune 'verbatim' accounts of the debates," Holzer believes, "magically transformed Lincoln's occasionally bumpy impromptu prose into seamless, cogent writing, while presenting Douglas's words as informal and coarse. Times reports, in turn, abbreviated Douglas's windier phrases and also diluted some of his venom, frequently deleting the inflammatory adjective from one of his favorite attack phrases, 'Black Republican,' or changing his use of 'nigger' to 'negro.'"

But interesting and instructive as these texts undoubtedly are, there is a serious problem with Holzer's theory. How does he know that Lincoln's prose has been magically transformed or that Douglas's attack phrases have been changed? Only by assuming that the opposition texts are accurate and that the friendly paper's deviations Page  [End Page 72] are all embellishments. If this is intended as proof, it is a glaringly circular argument. Assuming what is to be proved takes us nowhere, and these same assumptions put us in the awkward position of trusting extremely partisan newspapers without strong and compelling reasons for doing so.

To inquire only about Lincoln's side of the debate, what makes Holzer think that the openly hostile Chicago Times printed a reasonably authentic record of what Lincoln actually said in the debates, particularly given the unflattering and inarticulate character of the result? The germ of this idea seems to be his doubt that Lincoln was a good extemporaneous speaker. As Holzer puts it, "As an impromptu speaker, he could be dreadful. Notwithstanding his reputation as an engaging storyteller and spellbinding courtroom lawyer, an unprepared Lincoln could be a surprisingly hapless spouter of hollow banality." Holzer asks the question: "Given his lackluster record in unrehearsed oratory, how did he summon the skill to make cogent, hour-long speeches, along with ninety-minute rebuttals, and thirty-minute rejoinders, in his debates with Stephen A. Douglas?" The answer, he believes, is to be found in the originally published accounts of the debates taken down by opposition reporters as "so-called 'exact' transcriptions."

On the point that Lincoln was not a skillful and effective stump speaker or debater, Holzer is surely flying in the face of overwhelming evidence. Lincoln first distinguished himself and earned recognition as a standout stump speaker. His eventual prominence and leadership in his political party was squarely based on such abilities, not only to speak extemporaneously on the stump but also to put down live opponents in debate on the floor of the legislature and elsewhere. For more than twenty years before the debates with Douglas, he matched words with the best orators of his time and place—W. L. D. Ewing, George Forquer, Usher F. Linder, the other John C. Calhoun, and Douglas himself—and was acknowleged by contemporaries on all sides as a superior speaker. One of those who knew him longest and best, Joseph Gillespie, wrote, "As early [as] 1834, 5, he was put forward as the spokesman of the whig party, and he never disappointed them or fell below their expectation." [4]

Holzer's examples of Lincoln's awkwardness or ineffectiveness as an impromptu speaker seem to be taken mainly from occasions when Lincoln, as president, was deliberately holding himself back and Page  [End Page 73] trying to avoid impromptu remarks as possible pitfalls of misunderstanding. Although it is true, as Holzer asserts, that Lincoln tried to improve his Springfield Farewell Address when writing it out for the press, this speech as given was far from a lame performance and those who heard it regarded it as eloquent and affecting. And why, if Lincoln was ineffective on the platform, did Douglas, who had crossed swords with him for twenty years, say of the prospective encounters, "I shall have my hands full"?[5] The evidence from all quarters indicates that the Lincoln who was put up against Douglas was a formidable speaker, a feared debater, a master performer on the platform.

Virtually the only contemporary observers who portray Lincoln's speaking performance as inept are the editors and reporters of the highly partisan opposition newspapers of the time. It is notorious, as Holzer acknowledges, that in the heat of a campaign these papers made little pretense to objectivity and published strictly for political effect—to disparage their opponents and glorify their own. But in spite of this, Holzer's theory requires him to argue that when one reads Lincoln's speeches in the hostile Times accounts and finds that he is often halting and incoherent, that he uses strange locutions and awkward phraseology, that his arguments contain lapses in logic and non-sequiturs, and that he occasionally makes no sense at all, this is all to be regarded as convincing evidence of Lincoln's ineptitude as a public speaker.

Holzer admits that the best text would be a comparative one with the Press and Tribune and Times texts in adjacent columns, but he offers instead what he frankly describes as a "compromise system" that is somehow "better suited to the effort to exhume these old texts and present them to new readers." What is the compromise system? The basic text is that of the opposing newspaper—Lincoln from the Times, Douglas from the Press and Tribune—except where there are "huge discrepancies" in the reports. In such cases, Holzer says, "We chose to present both versions, with the 'friendly' alternative in the form of a bracketed insert." But although sampling shows that discrepancies are present in profusion and that many of these are interesting and possibly significant, only a small minority are actually noted.

The theory of having it both ways is attractive, but in practice it is more than a little problematical. Having frequently to interrupt the flow of text with bracketed alternative readings is one thing for those already familiar with the debates, but it must surely be mad- Page  [End Page 74] dening for the "new readers" Holzer hopes to entice. The resulting "compromise system" seems less than satisfactory for both. To be able to gauge the differences effectively, scholars and serious students of the debates need much fuller reporting on discrepancies than Holzer offers. New readers, who are grappling with the arguments and issues for the first time, would seem to need far less.

Valuable and interesting as these opposition texts are, they frankly do not seem to me a very suitable place for new readers to engage the debates. Indeed it is difficult to see what advantage there could be for a novice to begin here, which is why the book's subtitle, The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text, appears so misleading. In what sense may this be considered either "unexpurgated" or the first "complete" edition? Others have been more complete, if only in the sense of including texts of other speeches from the campaign. And that a "compromise" text should be at the same time "unexpurgated" suggests a complicated, if not conflicted, definition of terms.

Dubious and unpromising as Holzer's theory may be, the proof, finally, is in the pudding. What do comparisons of the texts really show? As expected, Lincoln's witching use of words in the Republican paper is often muted or even mutilated in the Democratic. One need go no further than Lincoln's first speech in the first debate at Ottawa to see that the opposition paper's account shows untoward qualities in abundance, but a question immediately presents itself: Is it more likely that the clumsy and ineffective performance recorded there is evidence of Lincoln's ineptitude or of an unfaithful report?

Although Holzer does not go into it, there is strong evidence that there was a marked difference in the way the opposition texts were reported. Robert Hitt, the Press and Tribune reporter who transcribed both sides of the debate, claimed that Douglas complimented him on his accuracy, whereas the Times reporter who transcribed Lincoln's remarks was not the same reputable reporter who transcribed the speeches of the paper's champion and was regarded by his fellow newspapermen as a slovenly performer. Thus the boast of the Times editor that "Lincoln's speech was printed verbatim, just as it came from the reporter" had a different meaning for the press corps from the one the reading public assumed.[6]

To make a conclusive case about the relative authority of the texts, one way or the other, would require a more extensive comparison than is possible here, but for an example of the general differences Page  [End Page 75] between the Times and the Press and Tribune accounts, consider a brief passage from Lincoln's speech in the Ottawa debate. The following appeared in the friendly paper, the Press and Tribune: "Now gentlemen, I hate to waste my time on such things, but in regard to that general abolition tilt that Judge Douglas makes, when he says that I was engaged at that time in selling out and abolitionizing the old Whig party—I hope you will permit me to read a part of a printed speech that I made then at Peoria, which will show altogether a different view of the position I took in that contest of 1854."

The opposition paper, the Times, rendered the same passage thus: "Now, I hate to waste my time on some things. But on the abolition tilt, that the Judge thinks I was engaged in, I hope you will permit me to read a part of a speech that I made at Peoria, which will show altogether a different state of case."

The Times account is here, as throughout the debates when reporting Lincoln, significantly shorter than that of the Press and Tribune. In this fairly neutral passage, where nothing very controversial is being offered, one can see why. Consider the resulting text when the words and phrases not found in the Times are eliminated from the Press and Tribune account:

Now gentlemen, I hate to waste my time on such things, but in regard to that general abolition tilt that Judge Douglas makes, when he says that I was engaged at that time in selling out and abolitionizing the old Whig party—I hope you will permit me to read a part of a printed speech that I made then at Peoria, which will show altogether a different view of the position I took in that contest of 1854.

Such an exercise is revealing, for it yields a text that matches that of the Times almost word for word. If Holzer's theory applies, Lincoln expressed himself in stripped-down, telegraphic language, which the Times reported accurately but the Press and Tribune had constantly to refurbish and augment. Is this a credible theory, or is it more likely that the Times account is pared down and skeletal, either through the fecklessness of the stenographer or by means of an editor's ruthless pencil?

If the passage given above is at all typical, it suggests that the tendency of the Times is to reduce Lincoln's statements to essentials. The inevitable result is a text that is deliberately deaf to the nuances of Lincoln's meaning, to say nothing of his artfulness with words and expressions. Not surprisingly, this seems to be true even when the Times report more closely parallels that of the Press and Tribune.Page  [End Page 76] Consider, for example, a passage in the Galesburg debate. The Times account is fairly close to that of the Press and Tribune, but a notable exception is its failure to do justice to Lincoln's deft application of the quotation from Henry Clay he has just read to the crowd. The Press and Tribune version was:

And I do think—I repeat, though I said it on a former occasion—that Judge Douglas, and whoever like him teaches that the negro has no share, humble though it may be, in the Declaration of Independence, is going back to the era of our liberty and independence, and, so far as in him lies, muzzling the cannon that thunders its annual joyous return; that he is blotting out the moral lights around us, when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them, that he is penetrating, so far as lies in his power, the human soul, and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty, when he is in every possible way preparing the public mind, by his vast influence, for making the institution of slavery perpetual and national.
As the Times gave the passage:
I do think, and must repeat, because I think it—I do think that Judge Douglas and whoever teaches that the negro has no humble share in the Declaration of Independence, is going back to the hour of our own liberty and independence, and so far as in him lies, is muzzling the cannon that thunders its annual joyous return; that he is blowing out the moral lights around us, and perverting the human soul and eradicating from the human soul the love of liberty, and in every possible way, preparing the public mind with his vast influence for making that institution of slavery perpetual and national.
The Press and Tribune against Times version:
And I do think—I repeat, though I said it on a former occasion—that Judge Douglas, and whoever like him teaches that the negro has no share, humble though it may be, in the Declaration of Independence, is going back to the era of our liberty and independence, and, so far as in him lies, muzzling the cannon that thunders its annual joyous return; that he is blowing out the moral lights around us, when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them, that he is penetrating, so far as lies in his power, the human soul, and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty, when he is in every Page  [End Page 77] possible way preparing the public mind, by his vast influence, for making the institution of slavery perpetual and national.

As in the case of the passage from Lincoln's speech at Ottawa, the Times text appears to be a stripped-down version of the text printed by Press and Tribune, but here one of the casualties is language crucial to Lincoln's meaning—the passage bearing on the immorality of slaveholding. When he had used the same Clay quotation at Ottawa, even the Times version incorporated his meaning: "When he is saying, as he often does, that if any people want slavery they have a right to have it, he is blowing out the moral lights around us." But at Galesburg, Lincoln seems to have found a more felicitous and memorable way of expressing himself, which may explain why no trace of it survives in the Times account. This prompted a Galesburg paper to complain that the Times, not content with making Lincoln "talk like a booby, a half-wiited numbskull," could not even permit Clay's "beautiful apostrophe" to go "unmutilated." [7]

Roy P. Basler and the editors who worked with him were reportedly under a great deal of pressure to complete their edition of the Collected Works, which may explain their willingness to settle for the text of the famous scrapbook, and if they calculated that no one would complain or find fault with this decision, they were right. It would, in fact, be idle to claim that a more sophisticated editorial treatment of the debates would greatly alter our understanding of them or their place in history, and this is undoubtedly why there has been little interest among practicing historians in pursuing an improvement in the text.

But that the text can be improved upon is beyond dispute. All parties responsible for generating the text of the debates as they were presented to the public, from the speakers themselves to the stenographers and editors who rendered them into print, have testified about the less-than-favorable conditions that prevailed for producing an accurate account of what was said. [8] The speakers were often interrupted by hecklers or other voices from the crowd, as well as by the noise of general crowd reactions. These crowd reactions had to be characterized by the reporters at the same time Page  [End Page 78] they were attempting to determine what was being said by the speakers and by the voices in the crowd. The wind occasionally made it hard for the reporters to hear, and it sometimes disturbed the paper on which they were writing. There were times when the noise and disruption were such that the reporters stated frankly that they could not hear what was said.

Stenographers' shorthand notes had to be transcribed, and this was not always done by the same person who made the notations. The principal stenographer for the Chicago Times is reported to have used a system of his own device, which meant that he had to do his own transcriptions. The transcriptions themselves had to be done at white heat, for time was of the essence in this enterprise, and newspaper deadlines had to be met at all costs. Once the transcriptions reached the editors' desks, they had to be edited for such things as spelling, punctuation, continuity, and coherence. And then the edited transcriptions had to be set into type.

All of these steps and conditions presented manifold opportunities for error, if we mean by error all contingencies that resulted in a difference between what the speakers said and what eventually appeared in print. And because the result of all this effort would be not one text, but two—that of the Times and the Press and Tribune—all such contingencies must be multiplied by two. That Lincoln believed that the texts of his speeches printed by the Press and Tribune were more accurate and representative of what he actually said than those of the Times is important enough evidence that it should not be ignored. But there is hardly reason for writing off the opposition accounts as worthless and disregarding them altogether. This is why and how Holzer's printing of these texts constitutes a welcome contribution to an unfinished agenda in Lincoln scholarship—a critical text of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The samples from the Glaesburg debate given previously offer a glimpse of an important use of the opposing texts. Much of Holzer's criticism of previous editions of the debate texts is well taken, for historians and editors have made no significant advancement beyond Lincoln's own editing of the text more than 130 years ago. Such lassitude is, in one sense, defensible, for Lincoln's text is the one that was printed and read during the campaign of 1860, much to Douglas's chagrin, and it thereby assumed an authority and historical importance of its own. But Holzer is surely on the right track to inquire about an essentially different matter, what was actually uttered by the contestants on those seven occasions. These are the lost texts that he seeks to recover. Page  [End Page 79]

The assumptions that he makes in embracing the opposition texts wholeheartedly are, I believe, unwarranted by the available evidence and do not stand up under scrutiny. But questionable and imperfect as they may be, these are nonetheless very valuable texts, and Holzer has done Lincoln scholarship a great service in bringing them forth. For one thing, Lincoln's editorial tinkering with the text has not gone unnoticed, and he has been criticized accordingly. The editors of the Collected Works assumed, for example, that Lincoln was responsible for the suppression of crowd responses and references to byplay on the platform in the 1860 edition of the debates. These editors made a point of restoring them in their text of the debates, even though much, if not most, of the material is calculated editorializing. Holzer follows their example and frequently implies in his annotation that Lincoln's "suppression" of the crowd responses was deliberately self-serving.

But Lincoln was not responsible for the omissions. The pencil strikeouts in the scrapbook do not appear, upon inspection, to be his, and this is confirmed by the publishers' reply to Douglas, who had written to protest unfair treatment. "The speeches of Mr. Lincoln were never 'revised, corrected or improved' in the sense you use those words. Remarks by the crowd, which were not responded to, and the reporter's insertions of 'cheers,' 'great applause,' and so forth, which received no answer or comment from the speaker, were, by our direction omitted, as well from Mr. Lincoln's speeches as yours, as we thought their perpetuation in book form would be in bad taste, and were in no manner pertinent to or a part of the speech." [9]

It is true that an examination of the opposition texts would not be sufficient to clear Lincoln of this charge, but they do shed light on another, namely that, in making marginal changes, Lincoln took unwarranted liberties with the text of his own words. He himself said of his scrapbook editing that his changes were "verbal only, and very few in number." [10] He has often been accused of having understated the extent of his editorial changes, and it is true that the number of changes (I count at least thirty-three) does add up to more than anyone's definition of "a few." In such circumstances, one can legitimately question whether the basis of his decision to alter the printed text was to correct errors or second-guess himself and improve his text.

Consider, as a test case, the five changes he made in his remarks Page  [End Page 80] at Freeport. Near the beginning of his opening speech, the Press and Tribune reported him saying, "I then distinctly intimated to him that I would answer the rest of his interrogatories." In his scrapbook, Lincoln added to this sentence "on condition only that he should agree to answer as many of mine." This has the look of Lincoln's not only second-guessing his own reporter but also fixing up the record to suit himself. A little further along he was reported by the Press and Tribune as saying in answer to one of Douglas's questions: "I would not oppose such acquisition, accordingly as I might think such acquisition would or would not agitate the slavery question among ourselves," but in the scrapbook Lincoln changed "agitate" to "agravate." The distinction is subtle, but the connotations of "agitate" being associated with the disruptive and unpopular activities of the abolitionists, it seems clear that Lincoln's political interests were being served by the change, and readers have a right to question whether the basis of this change is accuracy or expediency. The next change Lincoln made, "offensive" substituted for "affirmed," seems merely to correct an aural error on the reporter not caught by the editors, and the same might be said for the next change, where "decide" is substituted for "decree."

What is notable here—and what Holzer's text enables us to determine—is that, with a single exception, all of Lincoln's changes are taken from the Times account. And even the change that is not confirmed is actually unconfirmable, being part of a construction that is not present in the text printed in the Times. What is more, comparison of all thirty-three of Lincoln's changes shows that twenty-six are directly confirmed by the Times. Of the remaining seven changes, three are unconfirmable because the construction is not present, two are mere clarifications, and only two out of the thirty-three could qualify as out-and-out changes in the text by Lincoln himself. This suggests at least two things worth knowing: that even though he did not paste them into his scrapbook, Lincoln consulted the opposition texts in his possession before making any changes in the Press and Tribune text; and, more importantly, he cannot be accused of taking unwarranted liberties with the text or with the truth. The changes that he made in his own words were, as he insisted, "verbal only, and very few in number."

In consulting the opposition texts to augment or correct his own paper's reporting, Lincoln has here given us an example, in a small but telling way, of the kind of critical editing of the debate texts that has never been attempted. Shakespearean editors discovered as early as the eighteenth century that the text of the great poet's Page  [End Page 81] plays published by his theatrical colleagues in 1623, the First Folio, was not the definitive be-all and end-all text that it appeared. Although most of the earlier editions of the plays printed imperfect and inferior versions of the text, they could often be sources of words, lines, and even whole scenes that were lacking in the First Folio. By closely comparing all versions, and by ingeniously untangling errors of transcription and the press, editors of Shakespeare from that time on have steadily improved the accuracy and authenticity of Shakespeare's text.

By comparison, the editorial procedures employed thus far by transcribing scholars of the Lincoln-Douglas debates appear crude indeed. It is evident that if we edited the debates as rigorously and as resourcefully as Shakespeare's plays, we would long ago have discovered the utility of the neglected texts that Holzer has so usefully resurrected. The lesson to be learned obviously is the value of comparison. This means making a critical comparison of the two known versions of the text that emanated from on-the-spot reporters. It is, of course, a reasonable assumption that the friendly press produced the most reliable text, but it seems to have occurred to no one but Holzer to take a serious look at the opposition texts. Although he himself has embraced these almost as uncritically as his predecessors have their counterparts, his edition makes possible a new and illuminating look at textual problem of the debates and provides a working text of the principal ingredient that has been heretofore been missing. These are important contributions to the future editorial work of improving the texts of the debates

A modest example of how such improvement would work is apparent in the differing texts from the Galesburg debate cited earlier. Lincoln is reported by his paper, the Press and Tribune, as saying "he is blotting out the moral lights around us," whereas the Times prints "blowing." There is every reason to believe that the Times here printed what Lincoln actually said and that his own paper got it wrong. Lincoln was quoting Henry Clay, who wrote "blowing," a marginal correction Lincoln actually made in his scrapbook. Unless there was compelling evidence that Lincoln misspoke and actually said "blotting," a critical edition of the debates would obviously render it "blowing." The evidence in this simple example may be uncharacteristically abundant, but the example itself is a clear illustration of the basic principle involved in emending the primary text, the key being a close critical comparison of all differences.

Holzer offers only one extended comparison, and although its value in demonstrating his thesis is doubtful, it is instructive none- Page  [End Page 82] theless. He compares the reports of a justly famous passage from the Alton debate where Lincoln universalizes his contention with Douglas by insisting that the "real issue" being debated is the "eternal struggle" of right and wrong. The Press and Tribune printed the following:

That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says "You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it." No matter what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
The Times ran a slightly different account:
That is the real issue! An issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Douglas and myself shall be silent. These are the two principles that are made the eternal struggle between right and wrong. They are the two principles that have stood face to face, one of them asserting the divine right of kings, the same principle that says you work, you toil, you earn bread, and I will eat it. It is the same old serpent, whether it come from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his nation, and to live upon the fat of his neighbor, or whether it comes from one race of men as an apology for the enslaving of another race of men.

Holzer contends that "while the Democratic version lacks polish, it echoes with an impromptu-sounding immediacy lacking in the version published by Lincoln's allies." This is the extent of his argument that the Times text is preferable on the basis of accuracy, except to add "these newly unearthed rival transcripts may be no more perfectly dependable than the texts produced last century by the candidates' backers, but they may well be no more flawed, either."

Although it is not favorable to Holzer's thesis, there is, never- Page  [End Page 83] theless, something further that can be said about this comparison. It seems clear, for example, that in this part of his speech Lincoln must have named both of his principles, whereas the Times account has him naming only one, "the divine right of kings." The Press and Tribune account supplies the opposing principle, "the common right of humanity," which seems far more likely to have come from the speaker himself than from an editor. In fact, the Times account, when compared with its opposition here and elsewhere, shows signs of the stenographer wither not quite keeping up or not taking sufficient pains to capture the speech in its entirety. Lincoln might have referred to a king who seeks to "live upon the fat of his neighbor," but it seems far more likely and more in keeping with his sentiment that he spoke of a king who seeks to bestride his people and "live by the fruit of their labor."

But here one should note that the king bestriding the people was not a novel trope in Lincoln's oratory and that when he used it a few months earlier in his speech at Chicago, in precisely the same context, he had spoken of "the same old serpent," a phrase that occurs in the lackluster Times account but not in that of the Press and Tribune. Is it more likely that the Democratic reporter or editor inserted so distinctive a phrase on his own or that the Press and Tribune, for whatever reason, left it out? I have no hesitation in opting for the latter, and this is evidence of precisely the kind of thing Holzer is looking for, namely, something that Lincoln actually uttered in the debates but that was not heard, not understood, or was edited out of the account printed in the Press and Tribune.

The opposition texts of the debates are of undoubted interest to serious students of the debates, and Holzer has performed a valuable and noteworthy service in getting them finally to print. Not only do they add flavor and dimension to the dramatic occasions that were the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but they also provide the essential raw material for serious textual emendation. That Holzer's basic theory about the significance of these opposition texts may be disputed is of far less importance to students of Lincoln and the debates than the fact that he has made the texts themselves readily accessible. And at least one of his claims for these texts deserves to be heartily endorsed: "In the light of its long-delayed exposure, it can clearly be argued that the opposition version of all the transcripts deserved to be included on history's bookshelf, at the very least alongside the editions once approved by Lincoln, Douglas, and their supporters." Page  [End Page 84]


  1. David C. Mearns, ed., The Illinois Political Campaign of 1858: A Facsimile of the Printer's Copy of his Debates with Stephen A. Douglas as Edited and Prepared for the Press by Abraham Lincoln (Washington: Library of Congress, n. d.), 97.return to text
  2. Mearns, The Illinois Political Campaign, 19.return to text
  3. Harold Holzer, ed., The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).return to text
  4. Gillespie to M. D. Hardin, April 22, 1880, Hardin Papers, Chicago Historical Society.return to text
  5. Quoted in Holzer, ed., Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 4.return to text
  6. See the account in Walter B. Stevens, A Reporter's Lincoln (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 1916), [3–4], 52ff.return to text
  7. Edwin Erle Sparks, ed., The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, in Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1908), 3: 83–84.return to text
  8. See Sparks, ed., The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, 75–84.return to text
  9. Mearns, ed., The Illinois Political Campaign, 18.return to text
  10. Ibid., 9.return to text