Trip to Colonial Williamsburg shows how much presidential debates have evolved

Ahead of Tuesday night’s second presidential debate, NewsChannel 3 traveled to Colonial Williamsburg to get a history lesson on the evolution of political debates in the United States.

Historian Dr. Taylor Stoermer says early debates were heavily focused on policy, leaving out most personal overtones.

“They considered the issues of such great importance that you could not let individual issues get in the way of what you thought was in the public good,” Dr. Stoermer explained.

NewsChannel 3 was there as reenactors portraying George Wythe and Patrick Henry debated education policy in Colonial Williamsburg on Tuesday.

Once the 1800s rolled around though, debates took on a deeply personal tone.

“By the time you are getting to the election of 1800 and the battle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson you get to the dirtiest, most personal presidential campaign in American history,” Dr. Stoermer stated. 

That election saw mudslinging that Dr. Stoermer says is among the worst in presidential history.

“It’s basically an arguement that don’t vote for Thomas Jefferson because he’s had a relationship with one of his slaves,” Dr. Stoermer explained. “So basically it’s about scandal and sex!”

Dr. Stoermer says the debates of today with moderators are largely a modern phenomenon of the past half-century.

He says the founding fathers would likely approve that candidates today are forced to explain and defend their positions, but he says they’d likely scoff at calling it a debate.

“They have what 5 minutes alotted for a response to a question? That wouldn’t have been a debate in the founder’s eyes,” Dr. Stoermer explained. “That wouldn’t have even been worth their time because then what you come down to is 10 word answers. Is 1 line answers.”