Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Lincoln Douglas Debates

Lincoln Douglas Debates

Stephen A. Douglas, ca.1853

Today we feature another Civil War post from Luci Petlack, graduate student in the History department at U.C. Davis

BACKGROUND: In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled on the infamous Dred Scott Decision. Chief Justice Roger Taney’s majority opinion claimed that people of color could never be American citizens and that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850 were both unconstitutional as Congress had no right to interfere with the property of citizens, including slaves. As the ties loosely holding the country together weakened further, Americans began debating the meaning of this momentous decision. The most famous discussion occurred in a series of debates between incumbent Senator Stephen A. Douglas and small-town, lawyer Abraham Lincoln as they toured Illinois running for Senate in the 1858 Congressional election.

In these debates Douglas, a long-time advocate of popular sovereignty, argued that the Dred Scott decision still allowed for popular sovereignty. Douglas accused Lincoln of desiring racial equality and allowing marriage between the two races. Lincoln flubbed a response, but eventually proffered a complicated understanding of distinguishing the rights of the races. He believed that all people were created in the image of a supreme being and therefore had the same natural rights. He then explained civil rights, guaranteed by the federal government. Here, Lincoln claimed to believe that black men should have some civil rights, but not all (i.e. citizenship but not the right to vote). Lastly were states’ rights that should be determined by the individual states – pulling directly from constitution. His main example here was the right to marry. If the state of Virginia prohibits the marriage of African-Americans, then the federal government could not interfere. This delineation of rights is what brought Lincoln to the forefront of Republican politics on the eve of the Civil War.

Neither man claimed a victory in the debates. Douglas went on to win the Senate seat by a landslide, but this was not a loss for Lincoln as he had become a national figure and was available to run for president in 1860. These discussions created the leader who would take the country into and eventually win the Civil War.

How to use this image: When teaching the coming of the Civil War, the connections between the events occurring around the country and the political happenings often seem disconnected. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates provide a great way to connect the events of the 1850s with the rise and eventual victory of Abraham Lincoln. In 1858 a back country lawyer became a well-respected speaker and more firmly established his place as a Republican politician along with his stance against the expansion of slavery. From this discussion, we learn where Lincoln came from (i.e. how a black-horse candidate won the presidency) and why Southerners so immediately seceded upon his election.

Luci Petlack is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests include black American history, race relations and the American Civil War. Her dissertation, “A Dilemma of Civil Liberties: Blacks under Union Military Control, 1861-1866,” looks at the effects of military occupation and martial law on black communities during the Civil War in Baltimore, Maryland; New Orleans, Louisiana and Cincinnati, Ohio.

ebooks, memory, and resisting change

John P. Oertel “Things as they were, and Things as they are” (1853)

John P. Oertel “Things as they were, and Things as they are” (1853)

In John P. Oertel’s “Things as they were, and Things as they are,” the artist renders Johann Gutenberg (on the pedestal) a villain whose invention sparked a never-ending series of cultural revolutions, each one taking us further from the bucolic era of simpler times. Oertel dramatizes the presumption that the handwritten text is morally superior to mechanically reproduced text. The drawing shows that anxiety over disruptive technologies has been a concern of cultural critics and commentators since at least the 1850s. If we take the artist’s suggestion that Gutenberg’s printing press is the source of our anxiety, then in fact the preoccupation is much older, dating back to the 1440s.

Like most Kindle owners, I have had conversations with ebook skeptics as well as fellow Kindle/nook/iPad owners about how we all recognize the topographical relationship between memory and printed books. Most people have had the experience of remembering approximately where in a book (the first, second, or third third of a physical book or codex) an event takes place or a character is introduced. And while we may not be able to call a page number to the tip of the tongue, we could, if challenged, flip the paperback’s pages to the scene pretty quickly.

Now, psychologists are studying the phenomenon to see whether human memory relies on topographical clues and, if it does, what implications this has for a cultural transition to electronic books, or books without topography.

“My personal library serves as extension of my brain,” says Mark Changizi in Psychology Today. And while we don’t remember everything we read, Changizi continues “what I remember is where in my library my knowledge sits, and I can look it up when I need it. But I can only [sic] look it up because my books are geographically arranged in a fixed spatial organization, with visual landmarks.”

Within a printed book, the argument goes, we can flip to the right page quickly because the text doesn’t move. Electronic text, however, is fluid, not static. Text on the web and in ebook readers has no fixed position. In fact, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony and other ebook reader manufacturers cite the ebook readers’ unique ability to “reflow text” or modify the line breaks on a page to fit the font size as an advantage over traditional print. The reader can always adjust the font and size of the text to his or her liking.

Changizi goes on to argue that “the web and e-books… are deeply lacking in spatial navigability, and so they don’t yet serve the brain-extension role that is within their potential.”

Of course, the subjects tested in these psychological experiments grew up reading print, and therefore have a lifetime of using the topography of the physical book for mnemonic cues. Ereaders are so new that it will be another decade or more before social scientists can query a generation who will have grown up immersed in stories told through e-ink.

And therein lies a problem for Changizi and others who are quick to assign physical books and deny ebooks the role of proxy memory. We don’t yet know what it would be like to have grown up with iPads in classrooms, nooks in lockers, and Kindles on campus.

Odysseus and the sirensTo try and say more at this point borders on the kind of neo-luddism depicted in Oertel’s 1853 drawing. For millennia Odysseus has sailed between the dual threats Scylla and Charybdis before washing up on the shore of Ithaca, regardless what form the story takes. In that time, the text of The Odyssey made the transition from oral recitation to scroll to movable type to linotype to paperback to ebook. So far, the variety of formats has not derailed the knowledge based economy.

What disruptive technologies do you think will have the greatest impact on teaching over the next decade? Leave your comment below.