Great Debates: Abraham Lincoln and the German Journalist

When Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated Henry Villard was there to report to the German community.

There were seven debates between Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the race for the Senate seat from Illinois.

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Henry Villard first saw future president Abraham Lincoln at the August 27, 1858 debate in Freeport, Illinois. Both men were there because Lincoln was set to debate the leading national Democratic politician of the day, Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln was running against Douglas for the Senate seat for Illinois. The same pair would square off for the presidency two years later. Villard, who had immigrated from Germany as an eighteen-year-old just five years earlier, was a rising journalist who was working for the thriving German-language press in America. Soon he would become a correspondent for some of the most prominent English-language papers in the United States.

When he saw the previously unknown Lincoln for the first time, Villard thought that by his appearance “there was nothing in favor of Lincoln.” Lincoln was a “lean, lank, indescribably gawky figure, [with] an odd-featured, wrinkled, inexpressive, and altogether uncomely face,” he wrote. The urbane Villard remarked that when speaking, Lincoln “used singularly awkward, almost absurd up-and-down and sidewise movements of his body to give emphasis to his arguments.” Villard remembered later that Lincoln’s “voice was naturally good,” but Lincoln “frequently raised it to an unnatural pitch.”

These deficits of physical presentation would be serious impediments in a campaign that hinged on a series of debates between Lincoln and Douglas on slavery and the future of the country. Lincoln stood against the spread of slavery beyond those states where it already existed. Douglas argued that each new state admitted to the Union should be permitted to decide for itself whether it would be slave or free, whether blacks were people or property.

Lincoln followed Douglas from town to town in Illinois, challenging him at every stop to debate him. The better-known Douglas finally agreed to seven public debates.

Both Lincoln’s lack of training as a speaker and his odd appearance affected his performance in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and “[y]et,” Villard wrote, “the unprejudiced mind felt at once that, while there was on the one side [in Douglas] a skillful dialectician and debater arguing a wrong and weak cause, there was on the other a thoroughly earnest and truthful man, inspired by sound convictions in consonance with the true spirit of American institutions.”

Villard met Lincoln at Freeport and would meet him “frequently afterwards in the course of the campaign.” While put-off by Lincoln’s rural style, Villard wrote that Lincoln was “most approachable, good-natured, and full of wit and humor.” Some of Lincoln’s “humor” gave Villard doubts about the Illinois lawyer. “I could not take a real personal liking to the man,” Villard says, “owing to an inborn weakness for which he was even then notorious and so remained during his great public career. He was inordinately fond of jokes, anecdotes, and stories.”

Huge crowds turned out for the debates. Held in the summer and fall of 1858, each debate opened with a one hour argument from one candidate, folled by a ninty minute response from the other. Then the first speaker would have another thirty minutes to reply. Unlike modern presidential “debates” there were no questions from journalists, although audiences frequently yelled questions, comments, and insults to Lincoln and Douglas.

Lincoln’s habit of explaining every point with an earthy story made him popular among the ordinary folks of the countryside, but drove his more educated listeners to distraction. Villard says that Lincoln loved to hear “funny stories, and still more to tell them himself out of the inexhaustible supply provided by his good memory and his fertile fancy.” While the jokes were often used by him as a way of communicating with farmers and workers, Villard believed that Lincoln loved them as much for the fun they gave him. He recalled that “the coarser the joke, the lower the anecdote, and the more risky the story, the more he enjoyed them, especially when they were of his own invention.” Even worse, from Villard’s perspective, Lincoln “possessed…a singular ingenuity in bringing about occasions in conversation for indulgences of this kind.” In other words, he always tried to work-in a joke if he could.

Villard traveled around following the campaigns. He attended four of the debates, six other speeches by Lincoln, and eight by his Douglas. This was arduous. “It was a very hot summer,” he remembered, “and I was obliged to travel almost continuously.” Illinois had was still fairly undeveloped beyond Chicago and Villard said he travelled over “poorly constructed railroads, and bad country roads.” He lived and ate at “taverns in town and country,” which were “as a rule…wretched” where he “fared miserably in many places.” Villard was particularly unhappy when he traveled to “the southern part of the state, then known as “Egypt” and mostly inhabited by settlers from the Southern states.” It was called “Egypt” because Cairo, Illinois was the only important city there. Villard found Egypt’s “food and lodging…nearly always simply abominable.” A half-century later, Villard said that he could “still vividly remember the day of semi-starvation, and the night with half-a-dozen room-mates, I passed at Jonesboro’, where the third joint debate took place.”

Henry Villard in 1866, eight years after he first met Lincoln.

While Villard was travelling the countryside, he wrote later, Lincoln “and I met accidentally, about nine o’clock on a hot, sultry evening, at a flag railroad station about twenty miles west of Springfield.” Lincoln “had been driven to the station in a buggy and left there alone. I was already there. The train that we intended to take for Springfield was about due. After vainly waiting for half an hour for its arrival, a thunderstorm compelled us to take refuge in an empty freight car standing on a side track, there being no buildings of any sort at the station.”
Two refugees from the weather, Lincoln and Villard had a frank discussion. Here is how Villard recalled their conversation:

“We squatted down on the floor of the car and fell to talking on all sorts of subjects. It was then and there he told me that, when he was clerking in a country store, his highest political ambition was to be a member of the state Legislature. ‘Since then, of course,’ he said laughingly, ‘I have grown some, but my friends got me into THIS business [meaning the canvass]. I did not consider myself qualified for the United States Senate, and it took me a long time to persuade myself that I was. Now, to be sure,’ he continued, with another of his peculiar laughs, ‘I am convinced that I am good enough for it; but, in spite of it all, I am saying to myself every day: “It is too big a thing for you; you will never get it.” Mary [his wife] insists, however, that I am going to be Senator and President of the United States, too.’ These last words he followed with a roar of laughter, with his arms around his knees, and shaking all over with mirth at his wife’s ambition. ‘Just think,’ he exclaimed, ‘of such a sucker as me as President!’”

Lincoln would, of course, be elected president just two years later and Henry Villard would develop a close journalistic relationship with him. Villard, who had arrived penniless in the United States in 1853, would one day own both The New York Post and the Nation Magazine, and a good deal more besides. These are stories we will develop in the next installment of The Immigrants’ Civil War.

Video: Historian Matthew Pinsker discusses what the Lincoln/Douglas Debates were about:


Recollections of Lincoln by Henry Villard published in The Atlantic Monthly Feb. 1904 pp. 165-173; Villard, The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave et al, published by Doubleday (2001); Memoirs of Henry Villard, journalist and financier, 1835-1900 by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin (1904).

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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