8 Famous Debaters Every Law Student Should Study

There comes a time in every young law student’s life when he or she must argue for a grade and not funsies. And when that time rolls around, it’s probably a good idea to start studying those master debaters and learn a few things. Whether or not one actually agrees what they have to say remains irrelevant; somehow or another, their mad arguing skills landed them social, political or sociopolitical success. Or at least landed them in the annals of philosophical history. More than the following 8 exist, of course, so consider this (very) short list a couple of suggestions rather than anything definitive or comprehensive.

  1. Abraham Lincoln

    Abraham Lincoln is frequently touted as one of the great American orators and an inspiration to many (if not most) of the nation’s politicians today, most notably current president Barack Obama. When it comes to debating, his 1858 series of seven debates with Democratic Party candidate Senator Stephen Douglas probably remain the 16th president’s most notable achievement. He may have ultimately lost the Illinois senatorial seat, but these open discussions bolstered Lincoln’s national profile and probably helped him attain the presidency. In addition, contemporary high school, college and political debates still use their debates’ revolutionary format when arguing for or against certain values and issues.

  2. Nelson Mandela

    Long before his activism, 27-year imprisonment and historical election, former South African president Nelson Mandela debated whilst attending college. The rhetorical and forensic skills gleaned during this time greatly benefited him when dismantling the horrifying apartheid plaguing his nation. During his time in office, Mandela encouraged debate as essential to the democratic process. These days, though, audiences tend to know him more for his speeches, essays and memoirs when it comes to understanding his views.

  3. Mohandas Gandhi

    While India struggled against its British oppressors, revolutionaries Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore frequently found themselves debating politics, religion and culture. Both men desired their nation’s freedom and the demolishing of its rigid caste system, but departed when it came to execution. A lawyer by training, Gandhi’s way with words inspired an entire region to rise up and overthrow a crushing regime without any violence whatsoever, a concept he picked up in South Africa and introduced to the American Civil Rights Movement.

  4. Thomas Henry Huxley

    Also known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” this British biologist and educator earned notoriety as the man who famously went up against Church of England Bishop Samuel Wilberforce to debate evolution. Other philosophers and scientists participated in the Oxford-based discussion, but Huxley and his religious opponent proved the loudest and most memorable. Although it followed an informal structure, the 1860 debate helped popularize Darwin’s controversial theories and even bolstered Huxley’s later career.

  5. James L. Farmer, Jr.

    Integral Civil Rights leader James L. Farmer, Jr. started early: at age 14, he was already leading the debate team at Wiley College! While mentoring under English professor Melvin Tolson, he traveled to the White House and met Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, the latter of whom took to him immediately. Farmer’s lauded oratorical and rhetorical skills earned him quite a following during the African-American struggle for equality, eventually culminating in his co-founded of CORE. Along with the NAACP, this organization put together Freedom Rides across the Southern United States to protest segregated buses.

  6. Lyndon B. Johnson

    Prior to establishing himself as a politician, Lyndon B. Johnson led his collegiate debate team and even worked as a coach at Sam Houston High School — in 1931, the students he mentored went on to win their district championship. The skills he honed while both participating in and coaching his respective debate squads obviously played an integral role in launching Johnson’s political career, first as a Representative, then Senator, then Senate Majority Leader, then Senate Majority Whip, then Vice President and, finally, President. Although he initially landed the position after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson did end up winning the following the election.

  7. Margaret Thatcher

    Even today, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom still sparks a right fair amount of controversy, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t necessarily unworthy of study and consideration. While attending Oxford, Margaret Thatcher served as president of the university’s Conservative Association and debated politics and economics. As with many politicians listed here, her experiences certainly helped her rise through the hierarchy before serving as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.

  8. Plato

    Along with Aristotle and Socrates, Plato probably did more to further “Western” discourse than anyone else, as evidenced by the fact that he’s still heavily studied and discussed in today’s classrooms. While not a debater in the contemporary sense, the classical Greek philosopher’s rhetorical strategies and ideologies still carry considerable value for law students. Be sure to explore his Socratic dialogues as well.

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