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Debate Prep: A Brief History of American Political Debates

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by Maggie Koerth-Baker

From the Revolution up to the turn of the 20th century, America preferred that its presidential candidates be seen and not heard. The presidency was regarded as so solemn an office that it was considered indecent and prideful to aspire to. Instead, candidates were to approach nomination as if it were something that just happened to them—”Oh golly. Well, if The People say I must, I guess I have to!”

While the candidates had their hands full cultivating the self-effacing persona of an honest leader, their handlers, political allies, and fans did all the dirty work: printing fliers, holding public Q & A sessions, and generally campaigning on the candidate’s behalf. They even handled press write-ups, this being an era when newspapers were often owned and run by political partisans who made no claims about fair and balanced reportage.

However, this isn’t to say that politicians of the time didn’t know public speaking from a hole in the head.

Great, sweeping debates were common in the houses of Congress, and many politicians were experts at using the spoken word to convince their colleagues of a particular point—they simply thought it disgraceful to turn those oratory skills on the unwitting public. So great was the social taboo against campaigning for yourself that it wasn’t until 1840 that a candidate, Whig party member William Henry Harrison, was able to advocate his own election and still win. Even then, most historians think he got away with it because of a split in the Democratic party, rather than any change in public morals.

Lincoln the Heckler

Lincoln-Douglass.jpgThe first true election debates were probably the ones held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglass over the Illinois senate seat. In fact, those debates are famous today partly because such spectacles were extremely rare. Debates hadn’t actually been planned as a part of the race. Rather, Lincoln managed to cajole Douglass into them by showing up at all of the incumbent’s speaking engagements and peppering him with questions (read: heckling) from the audience. The ensuing series captured the imagination of audiences in Illinois and around the country and drew huge crowds. Of course, all this was more than a little ironic, since the audiences had absolutely nothing to do with which candidate won the election. At the time, senators were still appointed by state legislatures, as per the original draft of the Constitution. By simply bringing their views to the public at large, Lincoln and Douglass were accused of violating the spirit of the country’s founding document.

But in the end, the candidates (or, at least, Lincoln) had the last laugh. Although the Illinois State Legislature opted not to appoint the young upstart to the Senate, the debates made him a national celebrity and gave him the recognition and credibility to win the presidency (without debating anybody) two years later.

TV Kills the Radio Star

During the 20th century, presidential debates became more acceptable, but still not very common. Some election years they’d happen. Some they wouldn’t. And the public really didn’t pay a lot of attention. That started to change in 1948, when Thomas Dewey faced off against Harold Stassen in a radio broadcast debate for the Republican nomination. The first televised debate famously came in 1960, showing a poised, handsome John F. Kennedy squaring off against a sweaty, flustered Richard Nixon and giving the first hint at how image would influence future elections. However, it took a few years for the public and networks to catch on—televised presidential debates didn’t become a regular feature of election seasons until 1976.

This passage was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker and excerpted from the mental_floss book 'In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything.' You can pick up a copy here.

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Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

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