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  • “The Best Circus in Town”: Embodied Theatrics in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates
  • Gillian Silverman (bio)

On 22 August 1858—the day after the first joint debate between Lincoln and Douglas at Ottawa, Illinois—the Chicago Times, published the following account of the exchange:

When Douglas had concluded [his final speech] the shouts were tremendous: his excoriation of Lincoln was so severe, that the Republicans hung their heads in shame. . . . Lincoln in the meantime seemed to have been paralyzed. He stood upon the stage looking wildly at the people as they surrounded the triumphant Douglas, and, with mouth wide open, he could not find a friend to say one word to him in his distress. . . . When Douglas and the Democrats had left the square, Lincoln essayed to descend from the stage, but his limbs refused to do their office. During Douglas’ last speech Lincoln had suffered severely; alternately burning with fever, and then suddenly chilled with shame, his respiratory organs had become obstructed, his limbs got cold, and he was unable to walk.

In this remarkable description, Lincoln appears not merely defeated by his rival but emotionally and physically devastated. In language of escalating intensity, he is depicted as thrice-failed: first by his friends and supporters, next by his rhetorical skills, and finally by his very limbs which “refused to do their office.” Indeed, by the end of the debate, Lincoln appears to lack the wherewithal to exit the stage independently and is reported to have been “toted” off, long body and all, as if in a satirical funeral procession. “It was one of the richest farces we have ever witnessed,” [End Page 757] concluded the Times, “and provoked the laughter of all . . . who happened to see it” (qtd in Sparks 142–43).

Of course, this portrait of Lincoln, printed by the partisan paper of the Democratic party, was hardly an objective account. In the 1850s, only 5% of the newspapers in circulation were independent, the vast majority being tools for various political interests (Bode 250). In the rival Republican press, Lincoln’s competitor, Stephen Douglas, fared little better. According to the Chicago Press and Tribune, the “Little Giant” (as Douglas, owing to his small stature and outsized personality, was often called) not only lost the debate in Ottawa but also exhibited signs of lunacy. “When Lincoln had concluded his masterly and crushing indictment and conviction,” one reporter wrote, “Douglas sprang to his feet to reply. His face was livid with passion and excitement. . . . We have never seen a human face so distorted with rage. He resembled a wild beast in looks and gesture, and a maniac in language and argument” (qtd in Sparks 135–36). Here, no less than in the Times account, the political hopeful is imagined as volatile and unhinged.

But perhaps what is most significant about these depictions of Lincoln and Douglas is the singular focus on the eccentric bodies and bodily functions of the two politicians. During the course of the seven senatorial debates, newspapers, Democratic and Republican alike, would harp on Lincoln’s “tall, angular form,” his “lank proportions,” his “nervous-excited manner,” and his “face of grotesque ugliness” (qtd in Sparks 12, 58, 67, 201). To his critics, Lincoln’s rangy body and unruly limbs would come to stand as metaphors for a general incompetence and lack of control unbefitting a would-be senator. Indeed, one extraordinary news account implied that Lincoln’s loss of “natural powers” during the Freeport debate was so acute as to result in his incontinence. 1 Douglas, for his part, was continually lampooned for the contrast between his diminutive stature and his fierce combativeness. Reporters wrote patronizingly of the “towering ambition” of “Little Dug,” describing the incumbent senator as “almost like a dwarf . . . but square-shouldered and broad-chested, a massive head upon a strong neck—the very embodiment of force” (qtd in Sparks 129, 448). These depictions indicate the extent to which the political figure was interpreted in prodigious, even freakish terms. The Lincoln-Douglas debates, then, offer an important moment in which the representative of the American body politic was imagined as a grotesque body.

This understanding of the politician’s body is quite at odds...


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