Confederate Statues, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and the Power of Clarifying an Argument
We shall render our hearers willing to receive information, if we explain the sum total of the cause with plainness and brevity, that is to say, the point on which the dispute hinges. — Cicero, De Inventione
Political arguments never seem to produce resolutions. Most people come out of them more confirmed in their opinion than they were when they started. Nobody actually wins because everyone imagines that they’ve won — and that any rational observer would agree.
The big reason for this is that pretty much nobody actually has political arguments. Rather, we have political shouting matches, staged for the benefit of people who already agree with us. These shouting matches rarely become real arguments because they rarely include real disagreements. People express their support, or their disgust, with certain people or policies while other people express the opposite view. But the argument never coalesces at a single point where the opposing sides can be said to disagree about the same thing. A shouting match becomes an argument when the participants agree about the nature of the thing that they are disagreeing about.
Another way to say this is that an actual argument can’t happen until the participants reach a point of stasis. or “stand.” The point of stasis is the point at which the participants in an argument make their stand.
This concept is very old. Almost everything that we now understand about stasis comes to us through the writings of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE), perhaps the most well-known politician of the Ancient Roman Republic. Cicero came from a rural family of equestrian rank — a background that technically qualified him for government service, though only barely and through extraordinary merit and effort. But Cicero was the most gifted orator that Rome had ever produced, and he soon won fame as a lawyer and entered politics, where he rose through the ranks quickly to become Consul — the highest elected office in the Roman Republic — in 63 BCE.
According to Cicero, the first step in getting to a point of stasis is understanding what kind of assertions are being made. He argued that any claim that a person makes will fall into one of four categories: it will be an assertion that something is true (a claim of fact), an assertion that something is good or bad (a claim of value), an assertion that somebody should do something (a claim of policy), or an assertion about what something means (a claim of definition). These are, of course very broad categories, and each of them has a number of subcategories and special cases. But for more than 2,000 years, rhetoricians have found these useful categories for describing the kinds of arguments that people make.
Let’s look at a contemporary example. Consider the national debate that we are now pretending to have with each other about Confederate monuments. Here are a few statements ripped from the headlines (or at least my Facebook feed) that frequently come up in the debate:
- Destroying statues is illegal.
- Confederate soldiers were fighting to preserve slavery.
- Confederate generals were traitors.
- The BLM movement is Marxist.
- We need to preserve our history, even if it is painful.
- Disavowing the racism of our past is more important than making donors happy. (Frequently said on university campuses).
The first two statements are statements of fact. This does not mean that they are facts; it simply means that they claim to be facts and have to be disputed on a factual basis. The first claim — that destroying statues is illegal — is rarely challenged, and it would be easy to prove if it ever were by looking at an eminently Googlable city, state, or federal ordinance. The second statement — that Confederate soldiers were fighting to preserve slavery is just as easy to demonstrate but has become much more controversial in the current media environment. Both claims, though, are subject to the same kinds of evidence and support.
The final two statements are neither claims of fact nor claims of value. They are claims of definition. They simply define one thing as a subset of another thing, and they rely on the various associations that we have with the definitional categories to do all of the argumentative work. These statements rarely have anything to do with an actual argument. They are for the benefit of those who already agree with the speaker about the nature of categories like “traitor” or “Marxist” — or whatever other category an individual or idea can be shoehorned into.
The final two statements are values and, as such, are much more clear cut. Is there a value to preserving history? Is that value worth maintaining even if it means appearing to support something as horrific as slavery? Do we agree that eradicating racism is a good thing? Even if it comes at the cost of a large donation that would do other good things for a university? These are both legitimate subjects for debate.
In addition to making value judgments, though, both statements embed claims of fact that are rarely challenged. Do statues actually preserve history? Or do they, as Ken Burns has recently argued, merely elevate myth. And does defacing or tearing down a statue actually disavow anything, especially if it is not done by the people who put the statue up in the first place? The unstated arguments embedded in the assertion are the things that really need to be argued. They are points that could support meaningful disagreement with the potential to persuade somebody, even if just a little bit, to revise their position. Or at least to explain it better.
I can imagine (because I have participated in) a discussion in which all of these statements were invoked on one side or the other of the debate about Civil-War-Era monuments. But here is the problem: not a single statement on the above list refutes, or is even incompatible with, any other statement on the list. Two people could believe all six statements with equal intensity and still believe completely different things about Confederate statues. The argument never arrives at stasis because very few people think carefully about where they actually disagree with other side. And, as a result, though everybody imagines that they are debating a policy (retaining or removing Confederate monuments), none of the arguments ever really consider the implications of the policy they supposedly support.
Determining which questions are at issue in a debate takes time and attention. And it works best when we talk about it with each other in advance. Once we create the stasis point, we still have to agree on some things in order to have a debate about others. We have to agree about facts and definitions before we can talk meaningfully about anything else. And in order to argue about value claims, we have to appeal to values that we share. Until we spend the time necessary to foreground these areas of agreement, we cannot have meaningful disagreements. All we can do is yell a lot. Meaningful debate, unlike meaningless yelling, is a collaborative enterprise.
Among the great historical examples that we have of arguments that actually reached stasis are the The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. These debates would not be possible today. They were nothing like the sanitized joint appearances that we call debates, where candidates give brief answers to generic questions and try as hard as they can not to say anything that anyone could ever hold against them. The format that Lincoln and Douglas used for their debates was very different. There were no moderators, no questions, just the two candidates who each spoke for a full hour, with one candidate giving a 30-minute opening speech, the second a 90-minute rebuttal, and the first a 60-minute rejoinder. These debates are rightly considered the high-water mark of political argument in America.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates covered the single topic of slavery. No other issues mattered in 1858. We were a one-issue country, and the entire federal system was would be paralyzed until that one issue could be solved. But even though only one issue mattered, that one issue could not be neatly packaged into two “sides,” one pro-slavery and one anti-slavery. There were multiple values and policy positions at issue in the debate and either Lincoln nor Douglas were abolitionists in 1858. Abolition was not a question that was even at issue for them. Stasis had to be found elsewhere.
What was very much at issue was the question of how to handle slavery in the new territories. Douglas had hitched his star to “popular sovereignty,” or the position that each territory should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. Lincoln, on the other hand, argued that slavery should not be allowed to expand further than it already had, but that the federal government did not have the constitutional authority to interfere with slavery where it already existed.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates give us an excellent laboratory for understanding how debate sharpens, and even helps to create good arguments. During the early debates, Lincoln spent much of his time defending himself against Douglas’s charges: that he was an abolitionist, that he believed in full racial equality, that he supported interracial marriage. These charges not only kept Lincoln on the defensive for much of the first four debates, they prevented him from staking out a coherent anti-slavery argument that did not conflict with one of these denials. Douglas, on the other hand, was free to press his signature issue: “popular sovereignty,” or the assertion that the people of every state had the right to decide for themselves what to do about slavery.
All of this changed during the fifth debate, at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Galesburg was a Republican stronghold and a center of abolitionist sentiment, so Lincoln had one of the friendliest audiences he would encounter during the debates. Douglas had the opening speech, and he tried a new tactic. He came prepared with a quotation from a speech that Lincoln had given several months earlier in Chicago in which he argued that the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence was intended to apply to both white and black men.
Douglas then read other remarks that Lincoln had made during the other debates arguing that the races were not equal — which, Douglas argued, proved that Lincoln was a secret abolitionist who hid his intentions when speaking to people who did not believe in racial equality. Believing that the Declaration of Independence applied to slaves was the same as believing that slaves should be freed and should be granted the rights of citizenship. Douglas agreed that states who wanted to could grant such rights, but that no federal entity could decide the question for the people of any state — and that this agreement was the only thing that could hold the union together.
Douglas’s speech was effective, but he made a logical error that Lincoln was able to exploit masterfully. To use the vocabulary of the current chapter, Douglas did not counter the arguments that he quoted from a point of stasis. He cited several apparently contradictory value statements that Lincoln had made, and then he argued against the policy that he believed those values implied. His final argument for popular sovereignty, therefore, was a claim of policy offered as a counterargument to a claim of value. This had been a common theme of Douglas’s arguments, and up until this point, Lincoln did his best to explain his policy of containing slavery where it existed and prohibiting it in new states and territories.
In Galesburg, however, he came up with a much more powerful response by simply finding a way to put the argument in stasis:
I suppose that the real difference between Judge Douglas and his friends, and the Republicans on the contrary, is, that the Judge is not in favor of making any difference between slavery and liberty — that he is in favor of eradicating, of pressing out of view, the questions of preference in this country for free or slave institutions; and consequently every sentiment he utters discards the idea that there is any wrong in slavery. . . If you will take the Judge’s speeches, and select the short and pointed sentences expressed by him-as his declaration that he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down”- you will see at once that this is perfectly logical, if you do not admit that slavery is wrong. If you do admit that it is wrong, Judge Douglas cannot logically say he don’t care whether a wrong is voted up or voted down. Judge Douglas declares that if any community want[s] slavery they have a right to have it. He can say that logically, if he says that there is no wrong in slavery; but if you admit that there is a wrong in it, he cannot logically say that any body has a right to do wrong. He insists that, upon the score of equality, the owners of slaves and owners of property-of horses and every other sort of property-should be alike and hold them alike in a new Territory. That is perfectly logical, if the two species of property are alike and are equally founded in right. But if you admit that one of them is wrong, you cannot institute any equality between right and wrong.[i]
By putting the argument in stasis — and demanding that his opponent speak to the morality of slavery rather than to his specific policy proposals — Lincoln placed Douglas on the horns of a dilemma. Douglas could not answer the question on its own terms. If he said that slavery was morally evil, he would lose any chance of receiving the Democratic nomination for president. If he said that it was morally good, he would open himself up to demands that it be allowed in all states. All he could do was repeat the argument that states had to decide for themselves what to do about slavery, which gave Lincoln the opportunity to counter, convincingly, that moral values cannot be decided by popular vote.
This immediately became Lincoln’s strongest anti-slavery argument: not that it should be abolished, or even that it should be curtailed, but that it should be considered “a moral, social, and political evil” that might have to be tolerated but could never be embraced. He made this argument effectively in his Cooper Union Speech and in his First Inaugural Address. For the next two years, he insisted in all of his speeches that he was making a moral argument against slavery, not a policy argument, and this allowed him to win plaudits from abolitionists by denouncing slavery without running up against the politically dangerous policy issue of abolition.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates were not about abolition or emancipation, and Lincoln carefully redirected Douglas whenever the latter tried to place those questions at issue. They were not about any kind of policy at all. They were, or at least became, a debate about a value judgment. But clarifying this value lead to some of the most consequential policy decisions of the 19th century. Within just a few years, Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, freeing all slaves in states that were part of the rebellion. And he would later secure passage of the 13th Amendment that changed the Constitution to prohibit slavery everywhere.
And it started with an attempt to clarify an argument.