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What were some of the first historically notable debates?

Historians cite the 1858 Illinois senatorial debate between Republican Abraham Lincoln and incumbent Democratic senator Stephen Douglas as the most significant early debate. Douglas agreed to the joint appearances only after Lincoln followed him around the state and questioned him from the audience. Finally, seven separate debates were held, one in each of the state’s congressional districts. Without the aid of a moderator or a press panel, Lincoln and Douglas debated the hot issue of the day, slavery. Then relatively unknown, Lincoln received nationwide attention for his now-famous “House Divided” speech, during which he maintained that the “government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” The Lincoln-Douglas debates were controversial because they occurred in front of the voting public, even though state legislatures elected U.S. senators at that time in history. The debates were followed by newspaper and telegraph synopses, but did not ignite a trend in candidate debates. Lincoln lost the Senate race, but beat Douglas in the 1860 race for the U.S. presidency, during which there were no debates.

The 1960 presidential debate was the first general election debate held in U.S. history, and it ushered in a new era of debating in the twentieth century. As part of a larger movement to reform presidential campaigns, Congress suspended the equal time provision of the Communications Act of 1934 to permit a two-man televised debate. Before an audience of seventy million, in four debates over the course of September and October, the Republican contender, Vice President Richard Nixon, and the Democratic hopeful, U.S. senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, debated both domestic issues—including health care, education, and taxes—and foreign affairs. Television provided the first real opportunity for millions of voters to see their candidates in competition, and political commentators often cite Kennedy’s good looks and honed oratory skills as key to his winning favor with the voting public.


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