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1:14:22 A Great Debate

Debatable Details

By Lauren Korzeniewski

[1] One of the most pivotal scenes in Abe Lincoln in Illinois is the scene in which Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate for the seat in the US Senate (1:14:22, A Great Debate). Lincoln’s monologue is especially important for the film’s overall purpose. There are several things that this scene does, but most importantly it sets up Lincoln as a politician. The scene is a myth maker, with Lincoln extolling his ideals of equality and liberty for all, as well as the necessary rescue of the crumbling Union. Lincoln is portrayed as a slow-speaking, funny, idealistic political hero, and that is exactly how Americans see him today. This scene helps set the foundation for the Lincoln that American’s have held dear for decades since.

[2] The first and most important thing to notice about the scene is that the speeches that are given are not correct -- they are not the speeches given at any of the debates. There were seven debates between Lincoln and Douglas during the senate campaign in 1858. Although the specific debate the scene is intended to play is ambiguous, it is more a composite representation of the debates than a verbatim reenactment. That is clear when Lincoln, near the end of his speech, speaks the famous line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” This classic quotation embodies the ideals for which we have come to idolize Lincoln, those of equality for all no matter what their race and the idea of preserving the Union. However, Lincoln did not speak these words during any of the seven debates. Instead, he said them during a speech to the Republican Convention in June, two months before the debates even started. Although his words in the film cover many things he spoke about throughout the seven debates, such as the Dred Scott case, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and the strikes going on in the North, his speech is not replicated from any of those speeches. Instead, it covers all of the points that Americans see him as champion of, that is, emancipation, human rights, liberty, leadership, and patriotism. This speech, then, is almost completely fabricated, and its intention is to create a mythological figure of a hero president. Lincoln is called “The Great Emancipator,” and in this speech we can see that iconic image being fluffed up through his words.

[3] Another important aspect of this scene is the contrast between the ways in which Lincoln and Douglas are portrayed. Douglas speaks first, and he is a fiery and exciting orator. He speaks loudly and passionately; he uses large and animated hand gestures, including raising his hands over his head in fists when at his most impassioned. All of these techniques make him seem overly emotional and almost insincere. He also tries to insult Lincoln and is clearly experiencing stress while Lincoln is speaking, as we can see when the camera focuses on his face several times. Douglas is shorter than Lincoln, which is factual, but the camera looks at a slight angle down at him, putting him in a position of less esteem than Lincoln. Lincoln, however, is shot at a slight upward angle, raising him above the others in the scene. His demeanor is also calmer than Douglas’s, making him appear more level-headed and logical, which is how the viewer sees him. Lincoln’s tone is even, and he doesn’t get angry or overworked. He doesn’t move much, except for rocking slightly, which also helps him seem calm and capable. And Lincoln makes jokes in his speech, which presents him as likeable and earnest, something that does not at all come across in Douglas’s impassioned and even at times angry speech. The viewer cannot help but be proud when Lincoln makes a joke of Douglas by turning around Douglas’s insult back on him. This makes us really root for Lincoln even more; in a real sense, he appears to be the bigger man.

[4] The crowd is an interesting aspect of this scene as well. For Douglas, they cheer wildly, in more of a mob-like way. Someone nearby even comments on the crowd as empty headed for cheering such an empty headed man as Douglas. This makes the viewer hate Douglas even more and scorn the crowd for being so easily fooled. For Lincoln, they listen, they whistle, they laugh, they comment, and they cheer happily. This shows Lincoln as more of a man of the people, while Douglas is presented as a traditional politician. We as Americans like to think of Lincoln this way, as a man of the people who worked his way to the top through hard work and intelligence. By interacting with the crowd the way he does, this image is reinforced. Lincoln is eloquent and important but also funny and likeable. Douglas is a political stereotype. The way in which Lincoln speaks in this scene and throughout the film also makes him seem more a grassroots person. He speaks slowly and doesn’t use fancy language or rhetorical techniques. This makes him come off as more average, middle class, and relatable. Although he sounds intelligent, he does not sound pretentious. This also adds to his allure, and the director is helping to reinforce our ideas of Lincoln.

[5] Overall, this scene serves to create and more fully realize our ideas about Lincoln as an American hero. He is in this scene, through the way he is shot, the way he speaks, and the words he says, all the things that we want to see him as. He is humble, average but yet extraordinary, and a man of great and high ideals. He is also portrayed as better than Douglas, which is how the film makes us want to see him, and how we continue to see them. Although in reality Lincoln’s election precipitated the Civil War, we still see him as the best choice for the job of President. Americans cannot imagine anyone else being a better President at the time, and when we compare him to Douglas in this scene, that is certainly evident as truth. The scene helps to create our current image of him. In this scene, Lincoln is exalted; he is the person whom we want to see him as for the entirety of the film. Not only does this scene build from the mythic Lincoln of American culture that was created immediately after his death, it builds upon it and creates a moving image to help perpetuate and even further develop the idea as Lincoln as one of the most moral and impressive Americans of all time.