February 12, 2006
Stephen Douglas, Bush SupporterBy J.R. Dunn
America has been lucky in its great men. Nothing demonstrates the essential soundness of the democratic concept than a Lincoln, a Truman, or a Reagan stepping forward to take on a crisis that at first glance seems insurmountable.
But we've been fortunate in our near—greats as well, and it sometimes pays to take a closer look at the also—rans, who were crucial to events in their own way. Among them is Stephen A. Douglas, Democratic leader of the 1850s, the great rival of Abraham Lincoln, the man they called the Little Giant.
He was a small man with broad shoulders. Four feet six, according to contemporaries, an exaggeration of the Tom Thumb variety. His actual height was a little over five feet.
A native Vermonter, Douglas settled in Illinois, at the time scarcely more than frontier. In 1833 he passed the bar and quickly worked his way up the ladder of state offices: state's attorney, legislator, land office register, and secretary of state. In 1841, at the age of only 27, he was elected to the Illinois Supreme Court.
Turning to the national stage, Douglas after several attempts was elected to the House in 1843. In a short time he was a player in Washington. No greater believer in Manifest Destiny ever walked the halls of Congress. Douglas backed drawing the Oregon Territory border at the farthest northern point. He called for the annexation of Texas, and supported the ensuing war against Mexico.
In 1846, Douglas was elected to the Senate, and a year later became chairman of the Committee on Territories, responsible for overseeing the creation of new states. This chairmanship placed Douglas in the middle of the most gnawing problem of the era — the spread of slavery to the territories. (He'd already confronted slavery in his personal life. Upon marrying Martha Martin of North Carolina, he was given a plantation by her father, which included 100 slaves. Douglas had to perform some elaborate acrobatics to turn the gift down without offending his new father—in—law.)
Southerners wished to see slavery spread as widely as possible, to guarantee its survival in their own region. Abolitionist Northerners, needless to say, desired the precise opposite. Douglas, like most Democrats, was a compromiser, attempting the difficult trick of keeping both sides satisfied in order to preserve the national peace.
In this role he worked with Henry Clay on the Compromise of 1850, a package of bills allowing Texas to join the Union as a slave state, and California as a free state, while the territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah decided for themselves. To make the package palatable to the South, the Fugitive Slave Act was thrown in, a repellent law in which the leading democracy on earth tried to force its citizens to cooperate in the recovery of escaped slaves.
In 1854, Douglas introduced the Kansas—Nebraska bill, an attempt to defuse the slavery question by postponing a decision until the territories became states. Instead it triggered a civil war in Kansas and near—riots in Illinois. Stunned by both developments, Douglas refused to back the corrupt Lecompton constitution (named for the Kansas town in which it was drafted), despite personal threats from President James Buchanan.
Buchanan was as good as his word, firing Douglas's supporters, intercepting his mail, and turning over select correspondence to the newspapers (he'd have used the NSA if it had existed). Douglas fought a losing battle against the Lecompton constitution in the Senate. But he was vindicated when Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected the pro—slavery charter in 1858.
Douglas's political weakness prompted a well—known Illinois lawyer to challenge him in the1858 election. Abe Lincoln had already crossed Douglas's path through a series of speeches condemning the Kansas—Nebraska act four years earlier.
Lincoln, very much the underdog, proposed debates at different venues across the state. Douglas was unenthusiastic but at last accepted. The seven debates, each lasting three hours, were held between August and October.
Historians call the debates a draw. Douglas was a leading orator of his day, and he embarrassed Lincoln more than once in the early confrontations. But in the end it was Lincoln who gained the most. The debates made his name, turning the Illinois lawyer into a national figure. They also enabled him to refine his ideas, to work them into a form easily communicated and understood. The experience served him well in the greater contest two years later.
Having nearly won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852 and 1856, Douglas looked forward to1860 as his year. But Southerners, loathing him for his 'treason' in the Lecompton affair, walked out of two distinct nominating conventions. Although remaining Northern delegates gave Douglas the nomination, it was an empty gesture. Meeting in Richmond, the Southerners nominated vice—president John C. Breckinridge. Yet another splinter group nominated John Bell. The three—way split handed the election to Lincoln with less than two—fifths of the vote. The South exploded, and the slide to war began.
On April 14, two days after the attack on Fort Sumter, Douglas met Lincoln at the White House. Told that Lincoln was calling up 75,000 troops, Douglas advised him to raise it to 200,000. He also offered to tour the border and western states to boost support in those critical areas. Lincoln took him up on it, and he left only days later.
At Harper's Ferry, Douglas was nearly captured by Rebel militia but blustered his way through. He spoke at each stop between Washington and Illinois. At Springfield, he gave one of his finest speeches to a vast crowd:
He went on to Chicago, planning yet more speeches across the Midwest. But years of overwork and heavy drinking (the mid—19th century was the peak epoch of the gentleman drunk) had taken their toll. He came down with a fever (probably typhus), and died on June 3.
Heroism embodies the same features no matter in what field it occurs. Stephen Douglas was as much a casualty of the war as any man killed at Antietam, or Shiloh, or the Wilderness. He died doing something not required of him as a senator, because he was no longer acting as a politician, but as a citizen.
Times have changed, and the contrast between Douglas and his descendants of the Democratic Party could not conceivably be greater. The name of Stephen Douglas sits poorly with those of Reid, Pelosi, or Murtha. In our epoch, heroism is insulting your president to a television interviewer and discussing your country's secrets in public.
Douglas would not have understood any of it. He was a partisan, nobody ever more so. He had a robust contempt for Republicans as 'deserters from Democracy', 'revolutionary and destructive of the existence of this government.' He spent his entire career fighting for the policies of the Democratic Party at a time when it was far from easy to do so.
But he also knew where the line was drawn. And when that line was crossed, either by a corrupt president or an entire region overcome with secessionist fever, he was the first to put aside the quest for political advantage to act in defense of his country and the people he represented. How many know where that line is drawn today?
Douglas's final words were addressed to his sons: "Tell them to obey the laws and support the Constitution of the United States." It would be a worthwhile effort for today's Democrats to contemplate those words in light of their own conduct as members of the party and the nation that Douglas helped build. But of course they won't. They didn't back then either.
Among many other things, J.R. Dunn was the editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.