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TFAS Public Policy Fellows Explore Lincoln-Douglas Debates During Fall 2020 Retreat


How can engaging in political discourse shed light on the moral issues of the American experiment of liberty? TFAS Public Policy Fellows considered this question during a day-long retreat in October, exploring the political and historical implications of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates through a series of discussion sessions and a guided tour of President Lincoln’s Cottage.


The retreat began with a luncheon lecture by Chief Operating Officer at CURE, Dr. William B. Allen. Dr. Allen’s lecture, “Illuminating Darkness,” examined some of the arguments and the principles at stake during the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephan A. Douglas during the 1858 Illinois state election campaign. As Dr. Allen demonstrated, Lincoln was conscious that the perpetuation of the republic is not guaranteed, and the direction and survival of a nation is dependent on the actions and dedication of its people.

Following his lecture on “Illuminating Darkness,” Dr. William B. Allen led two seminars with Fellows on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

“The ‘spectre of darkness’ always haunts us,” Dr. Allen shared. “Therefore, there is no more important task, if one wants to survive in a dangerous and difficult world, than to illuminate darkness. For where the light shines is where you discover the path to follow.”

Dr. Allen used this analogy to demonstrate the importance of the arguments made during the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. They were about questions surrounding slavery and states’ rights, and how the people answered those questions would have a lasting impact on America. In making such choices, the people must always confront the prospect of failure of the American experiment of liberty.

“When Lincoln says, using biblical inspiration, that a house divided against itself cannot stand, he was depicting the prospect of failure – not as a question of fate, or historical evolution, but a question of the expressed conduct of the people themselves,” Dr. Allen explained. “He made it clear that if failure were to supervene, it would only supervene as a direct consequence of the choices the people were making… Nothing highlights this in the way that the Lincoln-Douglas debates do.”

Calvin Blaylock, PPF ’20 (left), and Scott Cullinane, PPF ’20 (right), enjoy a guided tour of President Lincoln’s Cottage.

Dr. Allen’s lecture encouraged TFAS Public Policy Fellow Calvin Blaylock, PPF ’20, to continue to shed light on the many issues facing American society today through his work as a policy professional.

“Dr. Allen began with an exhortation to engage in politics as a light that illuminates the darkness, and to make that encouragement, he walked us through the Lincoln-Douglas debates,” Blaylock shared.

Blaylock explained that even today, Americans face the challenge of determining right and wrong, and many in society turn to public opinion to judge what is morally right.

“Thus, our task as public policy professionals is to courageously use the institutions we are involved in to reshape public opinion on what is objectively good,” he said. “Dr. Allen’s lecture reinvigorated our Fellowship cohort to remain vigilant in being a light to society.”

TFAS Director of International and Continuing Education Programs Brenda Hafera believes that Dr. Allen’s lecture set the tone for the remainder of the year-long Fellowship’s curriculum on the American Founding.

“Dr. Allen’s remarks will prove a great launching-point for the remainder of the Fellowship, as the meetings will focus on such topics as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and democratic citizenship,” Hafera said. “These are all essential aspects of the American National Character and are under threat in America today. As in Lincoln’s time, the character of our regime will depend on the choices we make regarding these questions.”


Following the lecture, TFAS Public Policy Fellows journeyed to President Lincoln’s Cottage in northwest Washington, D.C., for a guided outdoor tour of the grounds. Revered as “A Home for Brave Ideas,” Lincoln’s Cottage is the site where President Lincoln spent over a fourth of his presidency and drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, invited Union leadership to strategize how to win the Civil War and where he came to comfort wounded veterans at the nearby Soldiers’ Home. Blaylock shared that the tour of Lincoln’s Cottage gave him greater insight into the moral vision of one of America’s most consequential presidents.

“What I enjoyed most about the tour of Lincoln’s Cottage was ascertaining a new level of insight into the major decisions that Lincoln made while spending more than a quarter of his presidency there,” Blaylock said. “Walking the grounds where Lincoln contemplated those weighty things made his presidency come to life in a new way for me.”

I’m truly honored to join these TFAS alumni as a member of the 2020-2021 Public Policy Fellowship. The Fellowship convenes people who are passionate about being honorable leaders, preserving the American national character and personally making a difference in their communities.” – Calvin Blaylock, PPF ’20.

Over the next several months, the Fellows will continue to hear from esteemed academics and policy leaders and participate in monthly discussions surrounding “The Experiment in Self Government.”

Blaylock said this first retreat made him look forward to the subsequent meetings of the Fellowship.

President Lincoln’s Cottage is also known as “A Home for Brave Ideas,” a nickname which pays tribute to the nation-changing decisions the president made while residing in the cottage.

“For more than 50 years, TFAS has provided opportunities for thousands of young professionals to develop as influential leaders in the public square, and I’m truly honored to join these TFAS alumni as a member of the 2020-2021 Public Policy Fellowship,” Blaylock said. “The Fellowship convenes people who are passionate about being honorable leaders, preserving the American national character and personally making a difference in their communities. Our cohort is also quickly becoming genuine friends outside of the program, and I eagerly look forward to the rest of our year together.”

To read more about the 2020-21 TFAS Public Policy Fellowship and this year’s cohort, visit TFAS.org/PPF20.


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