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Eric Foner on Lincoln’s Education

Question: Has the educated candidate disappeared from American elections?

Foner:    Lincoln was an extremely thoughtful, literate person.  Now, he only had one year of formal schooling in his entire life, which makes you wonder if education is even needed.  He was completely self-educated, and yet he developed a remarkable command of the English language, his letters, his speeches are brilliantly crafted, and he wrote them all himself.  He didn’t have a bunch of staff, speech writers like we do nowadays.  He didn’t have spin men going out and telling the press what he was really saying.  So, yes.  And this was, you know, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in 1858 were a period of a, you know, were a product of a different era.  They weren’t debates like we see on TV nowadays, with some moron, no offense, from the media asking stupid questions and pressing the candidates to attack each other.  In the Lincoln-Douglas debate, one candidate, Stephen A. Douglas, who was the Senator, Lincoln who was running against him for Senate in Illinois, one of them would get up and give an hour and a half speech.  Then the other would get up and give an hour speech, responding.  Or maybe it’s the other way around, an hour speech, an hour and a half speech responding, and then the first guy would have half an hour to respond.  This required an audience with great fortitude.  How many people today are going to listen to three or four hours of speeches by Senate candidates?  Not very much.  But thousands of people went and listened to these.  This was a different era of politics.  It was a time when people were used to logical and, you know, long explanations of political events.  You didn’t [just have] political ideas.  You didn’t just have little sound bites, you know?  So, yes, our politics today is much less literate than it was, and we don’t have anybody, I don't think, Democrat or Republican, with the brilliant command of the language that Lincoln managed to achieve. 

The author describes an insatiable autodidact.

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Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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