Monday, February 9, 2009

Audiobook Review: Lincoln-Douglas Debates

As you may have heard, Thursday is the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. In the run-up to that milestone, and in the wake of last summer's 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, BBC Audio has produced the first unabridged audio version of the debates.

The part of Lincoln is read by David Strathairn, with Richard Dreyfuss voicing Stephen Douglas.

Professor Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College gives a short introduction. But, otherwise, the recordings are a primary source, giving a verbatim recounting of the actual speeches. Anyone who is familiar with the story will get a lot out of listening to these. Otherwise, you will probably want to study the background a bit, before delving into these discs. Guelzo's brief introduction is very good, but it is very brief; anyone seeking an extensive explanation should look elsewhere, perhaps to Guelzo's own book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America. (I have not read it, so I can't make a recommendation.)

I think there are two common misconceptions about the debates:

  1. Lincoln and Douglas ran against each other for president in 1860, so people sometimes assume that the debates were part of that campaign. But those same two men also campaigned for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858, and it was that contest that featured these debates. Lincoln was the Republican candidate, challenging the Democratic incumbent Douglas.

  2. The candidates' positions are sometimes oversimplified as: Lincoln was anti-slavery and Douglas was pro-slavery. But the disagreement was not that stark, and it's interesting to listen for the nuances in the two men's stances.

I'll write more about the substance of their arguments in a subsequent post.

Both performances are very good. Dreyfuss is of course well known for his 40-year career in motion pictures. Strathairn is perhaps best known for portraying Edward R. Murrow in the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck.

Both actors succeed in putting quite a bit of personality into what could otherwise be a dry rehearsal of the original lines. And Strathairn hits a happy medium between two extremes in portrayals of Lincoln. Some actors have given him a powerful, deep voice that seems fitting for a great orator. Others have done more of a high-pitched screech which, while possibly accurate, can be annoying to listen to. Strathairn's Abe is believable as an Illinois lawyer with Kentucky roots.

The events before, during and after the Civil War remain relevant to our understanding of American politics, and the history that brought us to our present state. The discussions about racial issues during last year's presidential campaign are evidence of that.

All in all, I recommend this audiobook to anyone interested in American political history.

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