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The Late Partial Redemption of Stephen A. Douglas
He had one principle, after all
On this day in 1861 - June Third - Senator Stephen A. Douglas died as the Civil War was starting to boil around him. It was a fitting juxtaposition, since he had been a major part of the leadup to that war.
Those of us who remember Douglas today usually remember him as Lincoln's opponent, first in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates (in the 1858 Senate race), and then in the Presidential election of 1860; and so he was. This opposition paints him as a "doughface" Northern ally of the Southern slavers, and that's a fair frame for most of his career. He kept trying to turn them a friendly or at least blind eye and kick the can down the road with compromise. He was, through most of his life, a politician. As his 1905 biographer William Gardner puts it, "he hopelessly failed to comprehend the significance of the great movements" around him; he had "little of either mental or moral culture"; "he did not fall below the prevailing standard of political morals... [but] did not rise above the ethics of the times."
Yet in a way - as Gardner does not emphasize enough - in his last years, this consummate politician did find one moral point, however limited, and he stood on it.
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The story starts with slavery, as many political stories from that era do. More specifically, it starts with (to use Senator Sumner's 1856 term) the "Crime Against Kansas." The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, drafted by Senator Douglas himself, opened the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to settlement.
Until then, the Missouri Compromise (of 1820) had promised those territories would be free soil - slavery would not be allowed there. But Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act changed that by introducing the concept of "popular sovereignty". When either territory had enough people for statehood, it could vote on whether or not to allow slavery.
Douglas hadn't intended this to be controversial. He'd intended this to avoid controversy so he could simply get the territories organized for settlement and the eventual route for a transcontinental railroad. But controversial it was. This was opening previously-free soil to slavery! The South was excited; the North was enraged. The Whig Party broke apart over the suddenly-hot issue, and the new Republican Party formed on a platform of no expansion for slavery. Floods of pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers swarmed into Kansas, eager to secure the territory for slavery or freedom, ready to fight and - in some cases - even kill settlers from the opposite side. The idea of popular sovereignty was derided as "squatter sovereignty". As everyone understood, that's what it meant: the voters would be whoever ended up squatting on the land.
To make a long story short (and get back to Douglas), shortly, Kansas had enough settlers for statehood. Or at least it probably did; the censuses and elections were rife with fraud. A convention met at Topeka in November 1855 to write a constitution for the new state, which forbade slavery and also forbade black people from even living in the state.1 Douglas initially supported this, but the South and its sympathizers rallied against it. Douglas was willing to trade it away in politics, and the Topeka Convention reluctantly dissolved.
After a couple years of increasing violence in Kansas and sometimes-open bloodshed and massacres by each side's radicals, in 1857, pro-slavery settlers fraudulently and violently forced the polls - thanks in large part to mobs of ruffians openly marching across the state line from Missouri - and rammed through a slate of proslavery radicals to the next constitutional convention. Meeting at Lecompton, they wrote the "Lecompton Constitution," which openly declared that the right to own slaves "is before and higher than any constitutional sanction" and not even a constitutional amendment could abolish it in the future.
The Lecompton Constitution- all the era's most radical proslavery thought and propaganda put on legal paper - was sent to Congress, where President Pierce and the South and its sympathizers stood ready to accept it.
And Stephen A. Douglas spoke against it. After a life of swirling politics, the slaveholders had finally pushed far enough to find a principle in the man. His principle of popular sovereignty might have been taken by everyone else in America as a mere fig-leaf to duck the issue - as Douglas himself had intended it at first - but now that it had been put into law, Douglas did actually believe in the wording. And now, when fraud and violence had presented this work of proslavery propaganda under the name of a Constitution for Kansas, Douglas stood by his finally-excavated principle.
Douglas led the charge in Congress. President Buchanan - who had been nominated due to having been out of the country as Ambassador to Britain and thus not spoken on Kansas or slavery - viewed this as supporting antislavery agitation, which he considered a threat to national unity (quite correctly, as time would prove). So, President Buchanan threatened to, with the power of his administration and the Democratic Party, "crush" Douglas.
Douglas continued. Buchanan and the other Democratic Party leaders expelled Douglas from the party, expelled his friends from the civil service2, and organized and funded new caucuses with the sole and express purpose of defeating him.
He continued. He was eloquent in Congress; he had friends among newspaper editors; he had a few Democratic Congressmen who followed him and a large minority of Republican Congressmen who gladly agreed with him here.
And at long last, the alliance of Douglas and the Republicans won the people of Kansas a weighted choice: a referendum to either accept the Lecompton Constitution or abandon hopes of statehood until their population grew much farther. But, at least, Governor Geary had suppressed the violence by now. The referendum (in January 1858) would be monitored and fair. Overwhelmingly - by a vote of 10,226 to 138 - the people of Kansas chose to delay statehood rather than allow slavery.
Then, in summer 1858, Congress adjourned, and Douglas returned home to Illinois to run for reelection to his Senate seat. There, he found himself between a rock and a hard place. He was a Democrat; he had been a Democrat all his life. But now, much of the state Democratic machinery had fallen into the hands of President Buchanan's faction. Meanwhile, the antislavery Republicans were eager to hail him as an ally! He was not a man of many principles; he shrunk back from standing with the antislavery Republicans. Perhaps his principles were weak enough that he would have mouthed Buchanan's faction's words of slavery to be reelected, but they had already seen too much to tolerate him. So, he organized the remainder of the Democratic Party machinery (that had not followed Buchanan) into new caucuses, and appealed to the people.
Meanwhile, the Republicans nominated a relatively unknown lawyer who had only served one term in the House long before, but was very good at public speaking: Abraham Lincoln. "I shall have my hands full," Douglas said upon hearing of his nomination; Lincoln was "the best stump speaker... in the West." Douglas condescended to accept Lincoln's offer of formal debates, stumping from township to township: the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates. To make the long story short, Lincoln won the popular vote, but thanks to an accident of gerrymanders done before this whole issue for a far different purpose, Douglas won the Senate seat.3
The Election of 1858 over, he returned to the Senate. Kansas had quieted down, but the country was heating up. President Buchanan was still showing himself unable to calm the raging tempers, or take any action on slavery save what was put in his hands by others. Meanwhile, Douglas knew that he had lost the popular vote in Illinois, and much of his support in his own party, but he was still poising himself for the Presidency.
Despite Douglas's rejection by half of his party, two years later in 1860, his momentum - and his name among the remnant Democrats - was strong enough that he was put forward as President. Yet his principles - though never again spotted since his reelection, as he had been trying to walk them back without actually disclaiming them - had stuck so firmly in the slaveholders' minds that they insisted that the Democratic Party Convention endorse expansion of slavery, over every popular veto, in all American territory from Lake Okeechobee to the Puget Sound. The South was now insisting that the entire Democratic Party all but accept in its platform the same radical proslavery principles that'd been written in the Lecompton Constitution.
Faced with this, the Northern Democrats - who had given in to the South so often that they had been called "doughfaces" for being "half-baked men" letting themselves be led by others - finally stiffened their backs. Douglas would not explicitly disclaim his principle like this; they would also now stand tall for Douglas the man of one lone shining principle. Met with this surprisingly immovable object, the slavers were thrown into turmoil and chaos. The Convention could come to agreement on nothing, not even their manner of voting. Thereupon, the slavers stormed out with flowers strewn before them in the streets of Charleston as if they were conquering heroes. The remaining Democratic Party adjourned to Baltimore, surprised at their own backbones. Douglas won the empty nomination from Baltimore... but by that point, the Republicans had already triumphantly nominated Lincoln.
Abandoning all custom and propriety, Douglas rushed from one side of the country to another, personally campaigning, hoping against hope to gain some popular support to ease the unaccustomed footing of principle.
Yet all too soon, the telegraph clicked out to him the dreaded words: the Republicans had won Indiana and Pennsylvania.4 His aides - men of politics through and through - spoke to their master such words as would reassure themselves: by campaigning in these certain other Northern states, they had a bare chance of throwing the election to the House. Yet Douglas shook his head. All attempts to escape his principles had failed; as in the case of Kansas, he could deny them no longer. "Mr. Lincoln is the next President," he said; "we must try to save the Union."
And so he went South, again abandoning all habits and ways of politicians to campaign not for himself but for the Union. He was exhausted; he was ridiculed; he spoke before sullenly silent crowds who viewed him as an unsympathetic Northern foreigner and responded not to plea upon plea. Yet he continued his tour until, in a lonely telegraph office in Mobile, he heard the key ticking out Lincoln's election - and the South Carolinian governor's call for a secession convention.
Despondently tromping back to the lame-duck Senate, Douglas gave one solemn, tired appeal for his principles: popular sovereignty and Union, but above all, Union, even at the price of concession. He urged enshrining the Missouri Compromise line in the Constitution; he proposed invading and annexing Mexico to create more slave states - anything, for Union. And then, those appeals having been laid on ears as deaf as those he had met in his own Southern campaigning, he offered his services to his enemy the President.
Lincoln accepted and asked only for more speeches in support of the Union, which Douglas gave with all the vigor he could, as armies mustered on all sides of him. "There are only two sides to the question," he said to a packed crowd in Chicago. "Every man must be for the United States or against it."
And amid that speech tour, Douglas was unexpectedly struck by something else he could not escape: death. The same day the first land battle of the Civil War was raging (at Philippi in what would shortly become West Virginia), he died from typhoid as his life's work - for politics and then for the Union - was dissolving around him.
For much of his life, Douglas "did not rise above the ethics of the times," as his biographer Gardner puts it. But in the end, belatedly, he did stand up for his principles. They were not excellent principles. He did not oppose slavery in itself if it was duly provided for; he was unwilling to cast his lot with its opponents. He, with his party's founder President Andrew Jackson, would only say "our Federal Union; it must be preserved" against the calls of "Liberty" on both sides (one wishing for liberty for the slaves; the other wishing for "liberty" to keep slaves.)
But that in itself was a principle. His cry of sincerity and democracy against Lecompton was another principle. Douglas only found these principles when it was almost too late to stand for them, and his refusal of any higher principle meant that he stood in the middle against both sides of the greater battle of his time. Still, that in itself performed great service. Douglas was an ally to the antislavery Republicans in their first great battle. Without him, Kansas would likely have been made a slave state under the Lecompton junta. Without his breaking up the Democratic Party, they might well have defeated the Republicans in 1860, and slavery would have continued longer.
Beyond Douglas specifically, it was people like him - who wouldn't oppose slavery in itself, but supported the Union and opposed what slavery's supporters were doing - who finally brought slavery down. Many of them enlisted in the Union Army and came to oppose slavery after they'd seen it with their own eyes during the war. Many others came to want it abolished as a measure to hurt the secessionists. Douglas died before we could see whether he would take that latter route, but many people who shared his position in 1861 later took it. They helped end slavery and preserve the Union.
And, even without any of that larger significance, Douglas's belated stand for his lonely principles has some beauty in it. We can admire him for that even if we shake our heads at the larger principles he'd missed.
Many people who supported the “free soil” movement did so because they didn’t want black people (whether slave or free) living in the territory at all. However, as far as I know, this Topeka Constitution was the first time they’d tried to write it into law.
In this era, the civil service was used as a political tool like this by all political factions. It was sometimes criticized, but accepted as a fact of life. The practice dated back to America’s second President, John Adams (1797-1801), and was finally ended by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 which established a competitive exam system.
Technically, in this era, Senators were chosen by the state legislature. Lincoln and Douglas were formally campaigning for Republican and Democratic (respectively) candidates for the Illinois state legislature, and the state legislative districts had been drawn so that election got a Democratic majority. However, many if not most voters treated the state legislative election as a proxy vote for the Senate.
This was actually one of the arguments for the Seventeenth Amendment (1913), which let Americans elect Senators directly: now, state legislatures could be elected based on state issues, not as a proxy vote for the federal Senate.
In the mid-1800’s, these two states held elections for state offices in early October. They were widely - and, here, correctly - seen as showing which party would carry the states in the Presidential race.