Bughouse Square Debates: 21st Century Style
Five Freedoms Intern
On July 25th, in Washington Square Park adjacent to Chicago's Newberry Library, the century old Bughouse Square Debates once again became a noisy and invigorating demonstration of First Amendment rights at work. For the uninitiated who might raise eyebrows at the debate name, the word "bughouse" refers to the mental hospitals of the early 20th century and stems from the almost anarchic nature of the debates. Over the decades, people have stood on soapboxes, professing (or shouting) their beliefs to a usually skeptical crowd, who then heckle or cheer the orator. The orators have been a diverse and sometimes infamous group, including leftist radicals from the labor movement and anti-war movement, such as Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman, and renowned lawyers, such as Clarence Darrow, who most famously defended John Scopes in the "trial of the century," the Monkey Trial.
Rick Kogan, a veteran reporter from the Chicago Tribune, emceed the debates, providing a brief history and touting its decades-old support of civil rights, the Bill of Rights, and particularly the First Amendment. Kogan then presented an award to Barbara Till, who until recently was an advisor for the Stevenson High School newspaper, The Statesman. Till resigned after the school cracked down on her support for a controversial "Hook-up" article on teenagers’ sexual escapades.
A reenactment of one of the legendary Lincoln-Douglas Debates followed the award presentation. Kogan introduced the actors/orators playing the roles of the original debaters, Republican lawyer Abraham Lincoln was played by Michael Krebs, and Democratic Sen. Stephen Douglas. Both the original debate, and the Bughouse reenactment centered on the Kansas-Nebraska Act which stated that people in the sovereign territories could decide their own future regarding the issue of slavery. The original debate was held in Galesburg on October 7, 1858.
Douglas assailed Lincoln, who was adamantly against the act, for his alleged flip-flopping on the issue of slavery and racial equality-denouncing slavery to one group in the North while emphasizing the physical inferiority of the black slaves to another group in the South. Douglas also criticized the Republican Party as a "sectional" party while he extolled the national, patriotic Democratic Party. He praised the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) which Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, stated that black slaves, even freed ones, are not and can never be American citizens and that blacks never were meant to be covered by the "All men are created equal" line in the Declaration of Independence.
Douglas appeared to be vexed and perplexed by Lincoln's alleged support of black slaves because of these words in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." According to Douglas, Lincoln also said, "I'm not into equality for blacks" because of physical differences between the races; therefore, he was being either hypocritical or illogical. Douglas condemned Lincoln's position on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, calling it "heresy." He also pointed out that even Thomas Jefferson, who helped write the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves. He claimed that the Republican Party was for "mob law" and concluded by espousing a federalist view that each state must decide its own future, underscoring the direct sovereignty of its people.
Then Abraham Lincoln took to the podium to counter all that had been said against him and the Republican Party as a whole. Although he acknowledged that Thomas Jefferson had kept slaves, Lincoln observed that Jefferson was heard saying that he "trembled" for his country over the issue of slavery, for he feared the wrath of a just God. In regards to the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Lincoln assailed their root-old Mexican law-which he said could not be considered models for the nation as a whole. In closing, Lincoln lamented that the two laws mentioned did not say that slavery was either good or bad. He believed the acrimonious territorial grab and the fight between the free and slave states, as epitomized in "Bleeding Kansas," would result in a "divided house," or Union, that "will not stand"-eerily foreshadowing the Civil War.
In rebutting Lincoln's charges, Douglas called for an "up or down" vote on slavery. Also, he stated that he eagerly anticipated territorial expansion so that people of the territories could then democratically voice their opinion and vote in the eventual elections. For the listener, this reenactment of one of the most important moments in American history brought home the intensity and complexity of American society and our continuing struggle with the issues of race, fairness, and the balance between states' rights and the role of the federal government.
The soapbox debates, which followed the reenactment, each consisted of a 15-minute speech in which hecklers could voice their dissent and supporters could be equally vocal. The topics varied from support for abortion on demand to advocacy for an illegal immigration compromise. The audience was extremely diverse.
Jorge Mujica’s soapbox debate focused on illegal immigration. He denounced the hysteria over illegal immigrants, recalling the xenophobia of the late 19th century and 20th century. One heckler yelled at him, wanting to know if he came to the U.S. illegally. Mujica candidly admitted that he had been illegal at one time and is now an American citizen. He seemed amused that there are not walls around O'Hare Chicago Airport when, according to him, one-half of illegal immigrants come via airplane.
In his soapbox speech Michael Mackaplow, called for more responsibility among the races and the elimination of affirmative action. Lamenting the fact that there are many single African-American mothers, he called for vigilance, birth control, and a "reasonable life style" among the minorities. He advocated fewer racial preferences for one's own race. Mackaplow offered a personal anecdote, recalling that, when his Chinese business associates were asked to hire new people, they brought in others of their own race. Mackaplow stated that he has seen white people be more altruistic than minorities, although they are, in his opinion, the ones truly facing discrimination. One heckler yelled at him: "Have you been pulled over by the police only because of your race?" Mackaplow admitted that he hadn't and acknowledged that there is racial discrimination, but he still believes that white people are discriminated against more than minorities-and that minorities needed to be more empathetic. According to him, white people already are.
In another soapbox debate, Erwin Lutzer contended that Jesus Christ' life, death, and resurrection had to be accepted by historians as facts. As evidence, he mentioned that most historians agreed that St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 52 A.D. Lutzer was received by several skeptical hecklers. One man asked, "Where are the first hand accounts of the alleged ‘five-hundred brethren’ who saw Jesus' resurrection?" Others countered the question with their own outbursts.
The most fiery of all of the soapbox debates focused on the issue of abortion on demand. Mars Caulton and Lina Horne stood at the center of the audience, calling for abortion on demand and denouncing the "pro-life" movement as hypocritical and invasive in the lives of women. They told the crowd that one in every three women will have an abortion once in her lifetime. This position that abortion should be between the woman and her doctor and that ultimately it is about a woman's body clearly infuriated two people in particular, one of whom called the two young women "child-killers."
Although many of the issues were difficult or disturbing, the Bughouse Square Debates—a boisterous affirmation of the First Amendment—was a proud example of what makes this country exceptional and what the Founding Fathers--and Mothers-- intended: that citizens never become apathetic, but that they be informed, concerned, and fully engaged.