Great Debates

I became a little restless during last night’s debate and started thinking about other debates, past debates, great debates.  While last night was occasionally (and surprisingly) informative, in general I think we’ve turned our political debates into forums over the past few decades and wish we could return to the days of back-and-forth dialogues in which both sides elucidate rather than just score points. When we think of great debates, we think of Nixon and Kennedy, Lincoln and Douglas, and Williams Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey Trial (or Frederic March and Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind), but I think I can dig deeper and go back further.

First, two interesting images of Richard Nixon, literally clashing with John Kennedy in the 1960 televised debate, and pointing at Nikita Krushchev in the “Kitchen Debate” of 1959.

Photography credits:  Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos; Elliott Erwitt/ARTstor Slide Gallery.

Both were apparently riveting debates, for different reasons.  The Kitchen Debate fascinates me:  a really big debate—communism versus capitalism–spontaneous, unmoderated, captured on film and and broadcast to the world!  And just a generation earlier, the very existence of capitalism, democracy and nearly every aspect of western culture was debated, as these WPA posters from the later 1930s illustrate. Perhaps the 1938 reenactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates served as a reminder that this was not the only generation that was dealing with adversity.

WPA Posters from 1936-40, Library of Congress.

Think about all the amazing debates that happened in the decade or so before the Civil War:  over slavery and its extension, states’ rights, and the very survival of the United States.  Some erupted into violence; all were ultimately unsuccessful in bringing about a peaceful solution, despite all those Compromises.

An engraving of the Senate by Robert Whitechurch at the time of the Compromise of 1850:  Senator Henry Clay is addressing the senators, with Daniel Webster seated to the left of Clay and John C. Calhoun seated to the left of the Speaker’s Chair.  Library of Congress.  The Compromise did not hold: “Southern Chivalry” shows South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks caning Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate Chamber.

There were so many great debates held in the British Parliament over its long history it is difficult to choose just a few highlights:  debates over such seemingly insignificant issues as the adultery accusations leveled at Queen Caroline by George IV in 1820 and such major ones as the slave trade, suffrage, and many conflicts with the Crown. Of course there is a long history of debate outside the walls of Parliament as well, and while the arguments of the Radicals in the later eighteenth century are impressive, they were anticipated by those of the Levellers during the English Revolution. King Charles had been defeated by Parliament’s New Model Army, and there was an unprecedented opportunity for real political change, or at least the discussion of real political change. At the famous Putney Debates of 1647, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough of the New Model Army expressed a democratic argument that was way before its time: for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think its clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…”  Now this was the beginning of a truly great debate!

The House of Commons, 1793-94 by Karl Anton Hickel, National Portrait Gallery, London; woodcut illustration of the Putney Debates, 1647.


4 responses to “Great Debates

  • The Down East Dilettante

    The current low state (or changing definition) of debate is leaving me in quite a blue state—but, as always, I’m in awe of your research, and picture sourcing abilities (and taste)

    On another topic—-you are quite right, George Clough grew up and practiced in Blue Hill, in addition to his Boston practice. My grandparents were married, as it happens, in the double parlor of the Clough’s house. I went to school in a Clough building, and regularly visited my father in his office in the Clough designed town hall. I feel a blog post coming on…

  • susangeckle

    You’re an incredible historian. It’s interesting that you brought up the WPA. I had forgotten people were wondering if artists would survive even back then.

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