image_pdfimage_print
04/29/16

Stephen Douglas of Illinois

This entry is part 16 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Stephen DouglasStephen Douglas is best known for the Lincoln-Douglas debates that took place across Illinois during the 1858 Senate campaign. The two candidates debated seven times. Douglas won the election and was returned to the Senate.

Many historians suggest that his views cost him the Presidency in the 1860 election to the very same Abraham Lincoln. However, Douglas did have a distinguished and impactful career in the House of Representatives and the Senate that spanned 18 years. He gained the nickname “Little Giant” both for his diminutive stature and his achievements while in the Congress.

Stephen Douglas was born on April 29, 1813 in Brandon, Vermont to Stephen Arnold Douglass and Sarah Fisk. Douglas dropped the second “s” from his name some years later.

He migrated to Winchester, Illinois in 1833, where he served as an itinerant teacher and opened a school for three months at three dollars a pupil. He also studied law, and settled in Jacksonville, Illinois. By the end of the year, he wrote his Vermont relatives, “I have become a Western man, have imbibed Western feelings principles and interests and have selected Illinois as the favorite place of my adoption.” 

In 1934 Douglas began his political career with an appointment as State’s Attorney of Morgan County. He held the position for two years and then moved on to a succession of political positions, including the Illinois House of Representatives, registrar of the Springfield Land Office, Illinois Secretary of State and associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841, at age 27.

He resigned from the Court upon being elected US Representative in 1843, and was re-elected in 1844. In Congress, he championed territorial expansion and supported the Mexican War. In 1846 the Illinois General Assembly elected him a US Senator. The Illinois Democrat had entered the biggest stage in American politics.

In 1850, Douglas supported the omnibus Compromise Bill of Henry Clay. However, it was defeated and Clay who was very ill and handed off the passage of the bill to Douglas. The omnibus bill had been defeated because too many senators were opposed to one part of the bill or another. Douglas realized this and the divided the bill into separate bills. The separate bills were thereby passed.

In 1852, Douglas vied for the Democratic Presidential nomination but was passed over for Franklin Pierce. The following year saw him easily reelected to the Senate.

Douglas was an avid promoter of railroads. He saw them as a means of tying the regions of America together. At the same time he saw them as a way of promoting commerce and trade for his hometown, Chicago. In addition, Douglas had a financial interest Chicago real estate that was expected to benefit if a central route for a transcontinental railroad was built.

In 1854, Douglas became involved in the Kansas-Nebraska controversy. Nebraska Territory, west of Missouri, was then being settled, and Congress needed to provide territorial organization for the region. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery there (because it was north of the 36°30′ compromise line), and the Compromise of 1850 had reaffirmed this.

Southern leaders proposed a deal: they would support the central route if slavery was permitted in the new Territories. Douglas agreed. In the first version of the Act, Douglas allowed for the Territories to choose slave or free status at statehood, but the Southerners demanded immediate permission for slavery there (an implicit repeal of that part of the Missouri and 1850 Compromises). Douglas discovered a “clerical error”, and revised the Act to suit their wishes.

Douglas was vilified throughout the North. He joked that he could travel from Washington back to Illinois by the light of burning effigies of him. But in order to respond to his critics he invoked “popular sovereignty“, the doctrine that the people of a community were rightfully entitled to decide such issues for themselves.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was assured with the votes of some Northern Democrats and of all Southerners, Democrat and Whig alike. Opponents of the Act saw it as a triumph for the hated Slave Power. The passage of the bill was responsible for the fundamental realignment of the political parties.

The Whig Party dissolved; anti-slavery Northern Whigs formed the Republican Party instead, joined by many “free-soil” Democrats. There was a Senate election in Illinois in 1855: Republicans and dissident Democrats elected “Anti-Nebraska” Democrat Lyman Trumbull, a clear rebuke to Douglas. He was passed over once again in the 1856 Presidential nominating process.

The 1857 Dred Scott decision presented Douglas with a tremendous dilemma. The decision declared that under the Constitution, neither Congress nor a Territorial legislature created by Congress had the power to prohibit slavery in a Territory. This struck down key elements of the Missouri and 1850 Compromises, made the Kansas-Nebraska Act irrelevant, and denied the basis of “popular sovereignty”.

If he rejected Dred Scott, he would lose the Southern support that he needed for the presidential election of 1860. If he embraced Dred Scott, he would lose Northern support. He tried to avoid both hazards, issuing a tepid endorsement of the decision, while continuing to assert popular sovereignty without explicitly saying the Court was wrong.

Campaigning for reelection in 1858, Douglas initially tried to avoid debating his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln followed Douglas around the state responding to each Douglas speech a day or two later. Finally, Douglas agreed to a series of seven debates which came to be known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

In the debates, Douglas reiterated his support of popular sovereignty. He demanded to know whether Lincoln would ever vote to admit a new slave state, even if the majority of settlers favored slavery.

He denounced Lincoln for his insistence that slavery was a moral issue that had to be resolved by the nation as a whole. Douglas described this as causing an unnecessary conflict between free and slave states, which threatened to boil up into disunion and war. He also asserted that Lincoln supported civil and social equality between the races, and insinuated that Lincoln even accepted racial intermarriage.

Lincoln forced Douglas to commit himself on the question of Dred Scott versus popular sovereignty. In the second debate, at Freeport, he asked a direct question: “Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way … exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?”

If Douglas answered “No”, he would fully endorse Dred Scott, and would alienate Illinoisans and other Northerners. If he answered “Yes”, he would reject Dred Scott, and would alienate Southerners. Douglas declared that while the Supreme Court had barred explicit prohibition of slavery, that didn’t really matter, because the people of a Territory could exclude slavery in practice by “unfriendly legislation”. This became known as  the Freeport Doctrine.

It was barely enough to satisfy the voters of Illinois and Douglas won with a narrow majority in the Illinois legislature. But the Freeport Doctrine was vehemently rejected by most Southerners. The “Fire-Eaters” denounced Douglas as no better than an abolitionist.

The 1860 Presidential election matched Lincoln and Douglas again. However, the Democrats split along sectional lines and the Southerners nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, the sitting Vice President while some former Whigs nominate John Bell under the banner of the Constitution Party.

The four way race ended with Lincoln winning the Presidency with almost 40% of the popular vote and 180 electoral votes. Douglas came in second with almost 40% of the vote but only 12 electoral votes. Six weeks after Lincoln’s election South Carolina voted to secede from the Union and began the secession of the other Southern states.

Douglas was opposed to secession and at Lincoln’s request he undertook a number of speaking engagements in the Border States and the Midwest to rouse the spirit of Unionism; he spoke in Virginia, Ohio and Illinois.

Douglas died in Chicago from typhoid fever on June 3, 1861. He was buried on the shore of Lake Michigan.

 

 

 

 

 

10/6/12

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Lincoln and DouglasIn the modern era Presidential debates are highly structured affairs in which both parties vie for every advantage. The history of Presidential debates is rather short with the first known debate to be between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy during the 1960 Presidential campaign.

Debates were rather more common during 19th century American political contests. Without mass media to advertise their message, candidates often went on the road to debate in front of large crowds of appreciative voters who flocked to listen to their arguments.

Perhaps, the pinnacle of political debates in the United States took place during the 1858 campaign for the Senate seat from Illinois between the Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln and the incumbent Democrat Senator Stephen A. Douglas. The debates were a series of seven contests that took place between August 21st and October 15th.

A word of explanation is required for readers to understand the complete circumstances surrounding the contest for the Senate seat. Prior to the 17th Amendment, adopted on May 31, 1913, United States Senators were elected by their state legislatures. Lincoln and Douglas were running not against each other, strictly speaking, but to elect their party to control of the Illinois legislature.

Abraham Lincoln represented the new Republican Party had been founded in the Northern states in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, modernizers, ex-Whigs and ex-Free Soilers. The Republican Party quickly became the principal opposition to the dominant Southern Democratic Party and the briefly popular Know Nothing Party. Early Republican ideology was reflected in the 1856 slogan “free labor, free land, free men”, used during their first foray into national politics with John C. Fremont as their Presidential candidate.

Lincoln was a 49-year old lawyer from Springfield, Illinois at the time of the debates. He worked on both civil and criminal cases with his most famous civil client being the Illinois Central Railroad. Twice a year for 16 years, 10 weeks at a time, he appeared in county seats in the midstate region when the county courts were in session. Thus, he was widely known across the state.

Douglas was a 45-year old lawyer who had served in a number of appointed and elected positions starting in 1834. At age 27, he was appointed as an associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841. The following year he was elected as a U.S. Representative and was reelected in 1844. In 1846, he was elected as the U.S. Senator from Illinois.

Douglas was soon looked upon as one of the Democrat Party’s national leaders and was considered for the Presidency in 1852. During the Kansas-Debate mapNebraska Act debates of 1854, Douglas was the chief proponent of “popular sovereignty“, the doctrine that the people of a community were rightfully entitled to decide such issues for themselves.

The act would allow the citizens to vote for a free state or a slave state. The act was passed but it later led to violent conflict, most notably in “Bleeding Kansas”, where each side sought to gain the advantage by filling the territory with their supporters. If John Brown was the spark that lit the flame of Civil War, “Bleeding Kansas” was the tinder for the Brown.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates The debates previewed the issues that Lincoln would face in the aftermath of his victory in the 1860 presidential election. The main issue discussed in all seven debates was slavery.

Why seven debates. At the time Illinois had nine Congressional districts  The two candidates agreed to hold one debate in each of the Congressional districts. Since both had recently spoken in Springfield and Chicago separately, these two locations were excluded. The debates were held in seven towns in the state: Ottawa on August 21, Freeport on August 27, Jonesboro on September 15,Charleston on September 18, Galesburg on October 7, Quincy on October 13, and Alton on October 15.

The format for each debate was: one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute “rejoinder.” The candidates alternated speaking first. As the incumbent, Douglas spoke first in four of the debates.

The two contenders were physically as different as two men could be. Douglas was known as the “Little Giant” for his short stature, large head, & broad shoulders. Lincoln, on the other hand was 6’4″ and gangly.

The debates centered on the question of the day, slavery and its expansion into new territories of the United States. Lincoln was unalterably opposed to the further expansion of the institution while Douglas was in favor of popular sovereignty. Lincoln claimed that popular sovereignty would continue the expansion of slavery.

Lincoln-Douglas DebatesEach man marshalled their arguments using various laws and compromises that had been passed by Congress. Lincoln said that the national policy was to limit the spread of slavery, and mentioned the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which banned slavery from a large part of the modern-day Midwest, as an example of this policy.

The Compromise of 1850 allowed the territories of Utah and New Mexico to decide for or against slavery, but it also allowed the admission of California as a free state, reduced the size of the slave state of Texas by adjusting the boundary, and ended the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in the District of Columbia.

In return, the South got a stronger fugitive slave law than the version mentioned in the Constitution. Whereas Douglas said that the Compromise of 1850 replaced the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north and west of the state of Missouri, Lincoln said that this was false, and that Popular Sovereignty and the Dred Scott decision were a departure from the policies of the past that would nationalize slavery.

On election day, the Democrats won a narrow majority of seats in the Illinois General Assembly, despite getting slightly less than half the votes. The legislature then re-elected Douglas. However, the widespread media coverage of the debates greatly raised Lincoln’s national profile, making him a viable candidate for nomination as the Republican candidate in the upcoming 1860 presidential election. He would go on to secure both the nomination and the presidency, besting Douglas (as the Northern Democratic candidate), among others, in the process.