Thomas Jefferson’s 3 Tips for the Presidential Debate

Annie Holmquist | September 26, 2016

If early reports are any indication, the first presidential debate of 2016 is shaping up to be the most watched – and probably most entertaining – in history. Recognizing this, the candidates are both taking the appropriate steps to be well-prepared.

They might be wise to take a look at Thomas Jefferson’s simple tips for good debate and reasoned argument.

In 1824, the former president wrote a letter to a man named David Harding, thanking and congratulating him on the formation of a debate society named in Jefferson’s honor. According to Jefferson, citizens who know how to reason and persuade others are of utmost importance in a country such as the United States. To become a good debater Jefferson suggests the following steps:

1. Study the Past
According to Jefferson, the ancients were masters of debate and reasoned argument. By studying the classic speeches of Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus, Jefferson believed debaters would find good examples from which to construct their arguments.

2. Be Logical
Despite today’s schools being devoted fans of critical thinking, the American public seems to have minimal exposure to formal logic. As a result, it’s not unusual to see political opponents hurling fallacies and insults at one another. Follow the taste and logic of the ancients, Jefferson implies, and a debater will be on firm ground.

3. Keep it Simple
According to Jefferson, “speeches measured by the hour die with the hour.” The person who keeps his argument brief and to the point respects his audience and will likely be rewarded with attentive listening.

It seems a bit unlikely that either Hillary or The Donald will take Jefferson’s debate tips to heart, but would the American public be wise to do so? Would we see less vitriol from the debates of our politicians if those who elect them practiced Jefferson’s principles on a daily basis?

Image Credit: Constantino Brumidi via United States Senate



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