09/05/2012 01:19 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Lincoln Douglas Debates: What Do They Tell Us?

I had a chance to step back into history by taking part in a play at the Dorset  Playhouse called The Rivalry, based on the 1858 Lincoln Douglas debates.

I was given the fictional role of Adele, Douglas' wife,  who was a woman of her time -- quite the opposite of me in my time. When challenged on her views on slavery, she quickly retreated, "Oh, dear, I really should leave this sort of thing to my husband."  

The real protagonists, of course, were Lincoln and Douglas who were competing for a U.S.Senate seat from Illiinois.  Some 20 thousand people were said to have come from miles around for some of the seven debates.

They came by train, by boat, by horse and wagon,and some on foot to listen to the two men face off on the vital question of the day: whether the states should decide whether to be slave or free, or if the federal government had that power, a debate on states rights vs. the federal government which continues today, in different forms.

Disagreements were sharp. Adele complained about the "brickbats" and lies that were flung at one another and the outrageous bias of the press, not a recent invention.

Journalists took careful notes, giving us a nearly accurate version of their exact words. 

"Hah! Let me make this clear; I am opposed to Negro equality! This nation is a nation of white people of European descent... " Douglas proclaimed.

"He is my equal," Lincoln retorted, speaking of the Negro. "As a nation we began by declaring that all men are created equal. We now practically read it, 'All men are created equal except Negroes... '"  And I was tempted to add "women" but I  stuck to the script.

Yes, the debaters disagreed passionately and the press took sides, then as now, but compared to today's debates,  the tone of the debates seems different.  Lincoln and Douglas respected one another -- and they had the ability to remain friends. 

When Lincoln was sworn in as President in 1860, Douglas was there. Adele described the inauguration. "On the day of the inaugural, on the platform itself, my husband stood just a little behind Mr. Lincoln, holding his hat." It's hard to imagine such a scene today.

An audience discussion followed the play reading. They concluded that The Rivalry should be read in every Vermont school as a lesson in how to disagree forcefully with civility -- a lesson not only for the children but also for the adults -- as we are in the midst of a fiercely fought  political season that threatens to divide the nation once again.