Really great debaters, like the animal reconstructed, as Bret Harte
relates, before "The Society on the Stanislaw," are "extremely rare."
This is because the great debater must have a number of accomplishments
any one of which requires something very closely approaching genius.
The great debater must first of all be a brilliant speaker; but he must
also be a speaker of a certain kind. Many brilliant speakers are utterly
helpless in debate. The most helpless of these is the speaker who is
bound closely to his fully written manuscript or who departs from it
only by memorizing the sentences.
A certain preacher in a double walled brick church found a chink in the
inner wall just back of the pulpit. He found this crevice a convenient
pigeon hole for his carefully written and always excellent sermon during
the preliminary parts of the service. While the congregation sang the
last verse of the hymn preceding the sermon he would draw it from its
hiding place and lay it on the pulpit. One fatal Sunday he pushed it too
far in and it fell between the two walls hopelessly beyond immediate
recovery. His anguish during the last verse as the novelists say,
"beggared description." He read a chapter from the Bible and dismissed
his flock. One cannot imagine such a speaker, brilliant as he was with
his pages before him, achieving any success in debate.
The qualities of a great debater may be ranged under two heads: (1)
general, (2) technical. The general qualifications must be those of a
ready speaker, fully master of his subject and able to think quickly and
clearly and to clothe an idea in forceful, suitable language on very
short notice. The ability to detect a flaw in an opponent's case does
not consist merely in cleverness, but will depend upon the thoroughness
of your studies before going on the platform.
The great debater must go to the bottom of things. It is all very well
to take an opponent's speech and reply to it point by point, even to the
last detail. It is vastly better, however, if you can lay your hands on
the fundamental fallacy that underlies the whole case and explode that.
I well remember my debate with Bolton Hall. Mr. Hall's whole case rested
on the theory of the existence of certain Nature-given and God-given
rights of man. The apostles of the Single Tax from George down never
knew and probably never will know how completely all this has been swept
into the dust-bin by modern science. It was only necessary for me to
demonstrate the hopelessness of Mr. Hall's main thesis to leave him
standing before the audience without so much as the possibility of a
We shall consider at some length the technical methods that make for
effective debating. In my opinion, formed from my own experience, this
question of methods is of the greatest importance.
The most important thing in this connection is how to make the best use
of the time allowed and always know, while speaking, how much you still
have left. You may look at your watch at the beginning of your speech,
but once started, the brain, working at full capacity, refuses to
remember, and you turn to the chairman and ask "How much time have I?"
This not only wastes your time, but distracts the attention of the
audience from your attack or reply. Again, the relief is only temporary,
for in a few minutes you are again in the same dilemma. Then, worst of
all, right in the middle of an argument, down comes the gavel, and with
a lame "I thank you," you sit down. There are men who can carry the time
in their heads, but as a rule they are not good debaters, as they do so
because only a part of their energies are thrown into the debate itself.
This difficulty hampered me terribly in many debates and the only
consolation I could find was that it seemed to hamper my opponents about
as much. But it never troubles me now owing to the following simple, but
invaluable device: See that your watch is wound, take half a postage
stamp, and, as the chairman calls you forth, stick the stamp across the
face of your watch in such a position that when the large hand goes into
eclipse your time is up. Then place it on the desk where it will be
always visible, and the space between the hand and the line of eclipse
always shows your remaining time.
On the occasion of my debate with Mr. Chafin, the last presidential
candidate of the Prohibition party, on "Socialism versus Prohibition as
a Solution of the Social Problem," Mr. Louis Post, the well-known editor
of "The Public," was chairman. He courteously asked us how much warning
we needed before the close of our several speeches. Mr. Post is no
novice in debate and he looked much surprised when I told him not to
warn me at all and that he would have no need of closing me with the
gavel. He probably thought I had decided to use only part of the time
allowed me. When, at the close of my longest speech I finished a
somewhat difficult and elaborate peroration squarely on the last quarter
of the last second, Mr. Post's astonishment was so great that he burst
out with it to the audience. He said: "Mr. Lewis does not require a
chairman; without any help from me in any way he closed that speech
right to the moment. I don't know how he does it; it is a mystery to me;
I couldn't do it to save my life!"
In my debate with Clarence Darrow on "Non-resistance," at the close of
my long speech, when our excellent chairman, Mr. Herbert C. Duce,
thought I had lost all track of time and was going to need the gavel, to
his surprise, just as my last second expired I turned to Darrow and
asked a minute's grace to quote from Tennyson, which Darrow gave with a
promptness that scored heavily with the audience.
For some days before a debate I take care that my pocketbook is well
supplied with postage stamps.
Another matter of the very first importance is the taking of notes of
your opponent's speech and preparing to reply when your turn comes.
During the last few years I have met in debate, Henry George, Jr.,
Clarence Darrow, M. M. Mangasarian, Professor John Curtis Kennedy,
Eugene Chafin, John Z. White, W. F. Barnard, Bolton Hall, H. H.
Hardinge, Chas. A. Windle, editor of "The Iconoclast," and others, all
men with a national and many with an international reputation as
platform masters. But I have never been able to understand why almost
all of them, except Barnard and Kennedy, made almost no real use of
their time while I was speaking. The probable reason is that debating
has not been cultivated as an art in this country.
They sit quietly in a chair without table or note paper and are
satisfied to scribble an occasional note on some scrap of paper they
seem to have picked up by accident. Clarence Darrow got more out of this
easy going method than any man I ever met.
With all deference to the names I have given I must insist that this is
no way to debate. It should be done thoroughly and systematically. For
my own purposes I have reduced this part of debating to an exact
science. I do not dread a debate now as I once did. My only care is to
see that I am master of the subject.
I will now give my latest method of note taking--the product of years of
experience and many long hours of careful planning. It works so simply
and perfectly that I do not see how it can be further improved. This
confidence in the perfection of my methods is not usual with me. I have
tried every method I could hear of or scheme out, and this is the only
one that ever gave satisfaction. Now for the method.
Have a table on the platform. Never allow the chairman to open the
debate until your table and chair have been provided. Next, a good
supply of loose pages of blank white paper of reasonably good quality
and fairly smooth surface. A good size is nine inches long and six wide.
Any wholesale paper house will cut them for you. Remember, they must be
loose; do not try to use a note book. Next, a good lead pencil, writing
blue at one end and red at the other.
When your opponent makes his first point make a note of it in blue at
the top of one of your loose pages. There is no need of numbering any of
the pages. Keep that page exclusively for that one point. Leave the
upper half of the page for the note of his point. If you have your
answer ready, make a note of it half way down the page in red.
This will leave a space under both the blue note of your opponent's
point and the red note of your reply. In the upper space you may enter
fuller detail of his point if you think best. In the bottom space you
may amplify your reply or strike out your first idea of reply and enter
one that seems stronger.
The immense advantage of this one-point-one-page system is that in
arranging the order of reply you need only arrange the pages. The
position of any point may be changed by moving the page dealing with it.
When you have completed a page by entering the blue note and the red
reply and you feel that you have that item well in hand, lay that page
aside and work on the completion of others. When your opponent is about
half through his speech you should have about half a dozen pages
completed and you should begin to put them in the order in which they
are to be used.
A good strong point should be selected to open. Lay this page face
downward on your table, away from the rest of your papers, where it will
stand forth clearly and not cause you to hunt around the table when the
chairman calls you. Lay the second point page on top of it, face down,
of course. When you have a pile like this, by turning it over and laying
it before you face up, you are ready to begin. You can rearrange the
order of these pages from time to time during the latter part of your
Whenever you find your opponent developing a point you have already
grasped and noted, you may take time to go over the pile of completed
pages. In this overhauling process you will find some faulty pages. If
you have noted a weak point of your opponent's and it does not admit of
a strong, clear reply, take it out of your pile and place it separately
so that it may be returned if you can improve it sufficiently, or
finally rejected and left unused if you cannot.
By the time your opponent is about to close you should have about twice
as many pages as you can use in the time allowed you and they should be
rapidly but carefully sifted. Anything that looks vague or weak should
be thrust aside. If need be, it is better to spend extra time on some
strong position which is fundamental to the debate.
To make a good debate you must meet your opponent most fully on his
strongest ground. Any tricky evasion of his strong points and enlarging
of minor issues is disgraceful to you and insulting to the audience. It
is this latter kind of debating which has prejudiced the public against
A real debate should be a clear presentment of two opposing schools of
thought by men who understand both, but basically disagree as to their
truth. Such a debate has an educational value of the very highest order.
Every speech, as in lecturing, should have a strong close. The last
point can usually be selected before the debate begins, as it will
probably deal with the valuable results flowing from your position. This
method enables you to prepare the closing sentence or sentences--which
is of great importance. It is one of the great disadvantages of debate
that your speeches are liable to end lame and if you can avoid this, one
of your knottiest problems is solved.
A strong point also should be selected to open with; a point that will
put the audience in good humor by its wit is especially valuable. But
remember wit is only valuable when it bears on the question and
strengthens or illustrates an argument. Any indulgence in wit merely to
turn a laugh against your opponent will disgust the intelligent members
of the audience and the pity is that there are always block-heads to
applaud such deplorable methods. The platform suffers an irreparable
loss whenever it is used by debaters whom nature intended for "shyster"
As an example of a good point for opening a reply, take the following
from my debate in the Garrick, October, 1907:
My opponent, Mr. Hardinge, said, "As an Individualist Mr. Spencer was an
extremist in one direction, and the Socialist is an extremist in the
other. I take a middle ground; you will always find the truth about half
My note of this (in blue) was, "extremist, middle ground." My note of
answer (in red) was "revolving earth."
This was the answer as I made it from these two notes:
"Mr. Hardinge said we should not be Socialists because we should then be
as great extremists in one direction as was Mr. Spencer in the other. We
should follow Mr. Hardinge's example and take the middle ground for,
says he, truth is always to be found half way. Therefore, if anyone
should ask you, does the earth revolve from east to west, or from west
to east, you should answer, 'a little of both.'"
It would have been small consolation to Mr. Hardinge to know that this
reply was taken from the individualist Spencer, who should have been his
mainstay in the debate. But such things are common property and I had
just as much right to take it from Spencer as he had to take it from
Next: Tricks Of Debate