What in the world is Lincoln-Douglas Debate, and why should I coach or compete in LD?
My name is Marcus Viney, Head Coach of Cheyenne East, and this is, Episode 1: What is Lincoln Douglas?
Let’s begin with a little history. Lincoln Douglas or “LD” was inspired by a series of public debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during their 1858 senate race in Illinois. They debated in front of thousands of people (just slightly more than will be in your first novice round) about whether slavery should expand westward into the new territories. Douglas argued for “popular sovereignty,” the idea that the territories should have the freedom to choose slavery or not. Yup, you heard that right. The freedom to have slaves. Hmmm. Of course Lincoln argued against the expansion of slavery because, well, slavery is wrong, like really, really wrong. You might be surprised to hear that Lincoln actually lost the race to Douglas (you’ll have tough judges too), but two years later he made a righteous comeback, like Rocky in Rocky IV, and defeated Douglas in the presidential race of 1860.
So, why the history lesson? Well, understanding the origin of Lincoln Douglas helps us understand the nature of the event. The defining feature of LD is that it’s a values debate. Notice that Lincoln and Douglas didn’t debate about how something should be done, but about whether it ought to be done. The question at the heart of their debate was about what we hold most dear or believe is the right thing to do. This historic clash of values inspired the event we know and love today. First adopted in the summer of 1980, Lincoln Douglas is defined as a one-on-one values debate, lasting 45 minutes, centered around resolutions that rotate every two months. Topics range from the timeless, like those about free speech or violent revolution, to the more relevant like predictive policing or qualified immunity.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a quick look at why you should do LD. A lot of people will tell you that it will sharpen your critical thinking skills, boost your test scores, or get you a scholarship. And they’re not wrong; it’s just not the whole story. LD is way more special than that for multiple reasons. First, because you’re by yourself, it can transform you into a brand new person. LD is the place for underdogs and future legends. If you give it a try, you may just discover how powerful you are. Second, LD is an adventure of ideas. You’ll learn about the foundations of moral philosophy, why governments exist, and what they’re really not supposed to be doing. Finally, you get to channel Lincoln’s spirit of advocacy. He thought we had not yet become what we promised we would be at the origin of our nation, and urged us all to help with this “unfinished work.” LD is the place to discover what’s wrong with the world and why it may not fit with our highest values. You can become an advocate for change, and that doesn’t have to end in high school.
At this point, you might be asking “where do I begin”? Well, there are three simple ways to embark on your LD journey. The first is something called “30 Second Arguments.” Basically you get on your feet and make arguments on random topics for 30 seconds. The purpose is to warm up to the mental and physical challenges of debate. Your arguments don’t have to be good at first, and it’s totally okay to mess up. The point is just to practice. Topics can be mild or spicy. Mild might be like: “Everyone should own a pet,” “Books are better than movies,” or “Flying cars are a good idea.” Whereas spicy ones might be more like “College should be free,” “Freedom is more important than safety,” or “War is never justified.” The second thing you can do is read more about Lincoln Douglas from people way smarter than me. There are three books under $10 each that I recommend. First is a basic introduction called Lincoln-Douglas Debate by Cynthia Woodhouse. This has a full transcript of a simple round. Next, is an intermediate-level book called Competitive Debate: The Official Guide by Richard Edwards. This has more details about what should happen in each speech. And last, for a more advanced take, check out Lincoln-Douglas Debate: Values in Conflict by Jeffery Wise and Stan Lewis. This is a comprehensive guide to LD that will keep you busy for years. You can’t go wrong with any of these and they’re well worth the money. Beyond reading books, you can also check out a ton of information online. You can explore past and future LD resolutions on the NSDA website, which also has several helpful handouts and even a digital textbook available for download. If you’re feeling really excited, you can watch full rounds of LD on YouTube, like the 2010 National Final Round. However, if you’re super new, just be sure to keep in mind that these kids have been debating for years (you’ll get there someday too). Lastly, a great resource is Wyoming Debate Roundup, a website with super helpful blog posts and a ton of other links for online LD resources—way more than you will need. That’s enough for now. We’ll talk to you next time!