'Little Giant' or Shrimpy Jacka$$?

Published:June 12, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


During the recent presidential election FOX News made an embarrassing error, suggesting that the Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1859 were actually the Lincoln–Douglass debates, as in Frederick Douglass. Oops. Their producers might make up for it by attending the revival of The Rivalry, a 1959 play by Norman Corwin now showing in New York.

Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout likes how the debates are dramatized:

To present even one of the original debates on stage would be hopelessly undramatic, since each encounter consisted of an hour-long address by the first speaker, a 90-minute response by the second speaker, and a 30-minute rebuttal by the first speaker. Instead Mr. Corwin has compressed the transcripts into a series of compact scenes, editing the rebuttals in such a way as to create the impression that Lincoln and Douglas interrupted one another at will. While that didn’t happen—the format of the debates didn’t allow for direct interaction between the two men—Mr. Corwin has otherwise given a fair impression of what was said on the platform. Not only is Douglas allowed to have his say, but no attempt is made to conceal the awkward fact that Lincoln, opposed as he was to slavery, still believed that blacks were inferior as a group to whites: “Certainly the Negro is not our equal in color—perhaps not in many other respects.”

For point of reference on Lincoln & Slavery, here & here are two recent posts on the issue. Lincoln, by the way, was a former Whig Party congressman running for the U.S. Senate when he debated the powerful moderate, Stephen A. Douglas. Teachout continues:

So why not just stay home and read the transcripts? Because, among other things, you’ll be depriving yourself of the chance to see Mr. Kauffmann impersonate Lincoln. Not only does he bear a close physical resemblance to the man he plays, but his homespun, humorous acting is utterly plausible. Unlike the secular saint portrayed by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” Mr. Kauffmann’s Lincoln is recognizably human, and even when he’s flinging great shafts of rhetoric across the platform, he still seems like a small-town lawyer who has been ennobled by fate. Mr. Cormican’s Douglas is more conventional—he plays the “Little Giant” as a strutting, overly self-confident bantamweight pol—but no less effective, and Mary Linda Rapelye is straightforward and strong as his anxious wife.

I think we tend to too easily dismiss Douglas. For instance, I’m not convinced it’s entirely fair to call him as “a shrimpy pro–slavery jacka**,” but that’s just me. Our entry on the presidential election of 1860, in which Douglas figured prominently, is in the final stages of editing.

IMAGE: Stephen A. Douglas