The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Thomas Schwartz: How Lincoln Did It

Mon, February 4, 2013 | BAT 5.108

9:00 AM

How Lincoln Did It

A talk by Thomas Schwartz, Distinguished Professor of political science- UCLA

Monday, Feb. 4, 9am BAT 5.108

In their 1858 contest for a U.S. Senate Seat from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln trapped Senator Stephen A. Douglas in their debate at Freeport, dividing the Democratic Party. William Riker’s analysis has added a dose of political science to the longstanding investigations of historians. His contribution was to classify and celebrate Lincoln’s strategy as an “heresthetic” ploy and to explain its efficacy by hypothesizing that Lincoln and the Republicans had inserted a new issue dimension, that of slavery, into party competition and exploited the instability inherent in any multi-dimensional electoral contest to overturn the status quo. Those contentions are controversial. Historians see the debates as a rehash of long-standing differences, dismiss the Douglas-entrapment story as folklore, and argue that Lincoln did not profit from a split opposition. Our five-fold thesis is that Riker is right that Lincoln successfully used an heresthetic ploy against Douglas, but otherwise previous scholarship is fundamentally wrong. First, the imputed strategy of splitting the opposition is best explained with one issue dimension – and nicely illustrates how easily the Hotelling-Downs convergence hypothesis can be flouted. Second, the textual and historical evidence is overwhelming: contrary to Riker, the 1858 contest was one-dimensional, focused entirely on slavery, which Lincoln and his party did not introduce. Third, Lincoln did not sacrifice 1858 for 1860: he split the opposition in 1858 too, and that helped Lincoln and the Republican Party in both years. Fourth, Lincoln did split the opposition in 1860 by means of his 1858 debate strategy: the folklore embraced by Riker but disparaged by historians is basically right. Last, without the split, Lincoln probably would not have won the presidency.

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