Barack Obama – as political phenom – has stirred comparisons to Abe Lincoln. Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer of comparable age, experience and skinniness, burst upon the national scene in 1858 in the intense verbal combat with Stephen A. Douglas.
There is this additional similarity: Just as Obama deftly uses the internet to disperse favorable news and raise money, so Lincoln used the new media of his day to advance his cause.
Allen Guelzo, of Gettysburg College, notes in his riveting new book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates that over the course of the seven debates in seven towns, Lincoln kept his eye on the larger national audience, which he reached via the new media of 1858.
Here’s how it worked: Stenographers used a new phonetic shorthand to take down every word of the verbal battle, filling pages of transcript right up to the moment of the first train for Chicago. One fellow caught the train, converting notes into text while riding through the Illinois countryside. He arrived, and typesetting began. When the debate ended, the note-taker himself hopped the next train and prepared the rest of the text for typesetting. The entire transcript was often available for the morning edition.
The information network of the day was telegraph – which Guelzo says boasted 50,000 miles of wire. Using this system, the New York papers offered the debate texts in three days.
Lincoln began to understand that he was addressing a national audience. He varied his argument, launched new attacks each time, and built from debate to debate a powerful case for keeping slavery out of the Western territories.
Douglas – speaking to each new crowd in each new town – stuck more closely to his argument from debate to debate. He wanted each crowd to hear his strongest case.
Lincoln saw the debates “as a newspaper serial,” Guelzo writes. “He had no need to repeat himself in each debate town, because he counted on audiences in one place having read the texts of the debates in the others. This induced Lincoln to treat the debates as cumulative and move on in developing new arguments as the debates themselves developed.”
Thus Lincoln made a richer, more persuasive case to the national audience. He lost the Illinois senate race, but thanks to his Barack-like use of new media, he built a national reputation and won the Presidential election of 1860.