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.

 

 

 

 

 

04/25/16

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

This entry is part 12 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Bleeding Kansas-The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854The original intent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was to open up the vast new territories of the West for farming. By creating a governmental infrastructure the Congress hoped that it would make a transcontinental railroad feasible. These two goals were laudable but in the writing of the bill the idea of popular sovereignty was written in the act.

What was popular sovereignty? It was the concept that allowed the voters of the moment to decide if Kansas and Nebraska would enter the Union as free states or slave states. It was to set up the conditions for a border war between supporters of slavery and Free Soilers.

Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois who wrote the bill hoped that the formula of “popular sovereignty” would ease national tensions over the issue of human bondage and that he would not have to take a side on the issue. Instead, it ignited a spark that eventually led to civil war.

Douglas was the Democratic party leader in the United States Senate, the chairman of the Committee on Territories, an avid promoter of railroads, an aspirant to the presidency, and, above all, a fervent believer in popular sovereignty.

Douglas was an early supporter of a transcontinental railroad, especially one that had its terminus in Chicago, Illinois. A bill to organize the Nebraska Territory passed the House and went to the Senate. It was taken up by the Senate’s Committee on Territories which was chaired by Douglas.

Missouri Sen. David Atchison announced that he would support the Nebraska proposal only if slaveholders were not banned from the new territory.  The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery north of the Missouri state line. Other Southern senators were not as flexible as Atchison. By a vote of 23 to 17, the senate voted to kill the motion by tabling it with every senator from states south of Missouri voting for the tabling.

During the senate adjournment a group of senators, including Atchison,  formed the nucleus that would insist on slaveholder equality in Nebraska. Aware of their opinions and power, Douglas knew that he needed to address their concerns in order to move forward with the bill.

By the time that the bill was reported out of committee it had changed dramatically. In the new bill the territory of Nebraska was extended north all the way to the 49th parallel, and any decisions on slavery were to be made “when admitted as a state or states, the said territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.”

But the bill still presented problems for the Southern senators. Without the explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise, slaveholders would be reluctant to move to the new territory until slavery was actually approved by the settlers, settlers who would most likely hold free-soil views.

Kentucky Whig Archibald Dixon introduced an amendment that did just that, much to Douglas’ surprise. A similar amendment was offered in Map of the United States in 1854-The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854the House to match the Senate’s version.

On January 23 a revised bill was introduced in the Senate that repealed the Missouri Compromise and divided the territory into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. The division was the result of concerns expressed by settlers already in Nebraska as well as the senators from Iowa who were concerned with the location of the territory’s seat of government if such a large territory was created.

The reformulated bill stirred up a hornet’s nest of debate in both Houses of Congress. The Democrats held large majorities in each house, and Stephen Douglas, “a ferocious fighter, the fiercest, most ruthless, and most unscrupulous that Congress had perhaps ever known” led a tightly disciplined party. The Free Soilers were at a distinct disadvantage.

The debate would continue for four months. Douglas remained the main advocate for the bill while Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts led the opposition. In the end the bill passed. The final vote in favor of passage was 37 to 14. Free state senators voted 14 to 12 in favor while slave state senators overwhelmingly supported the bill 23 to 2.

The debate then moved to the House. The opponents of the bill used a delaying tactic. The legislation was referred by a vote of 110 to 95 to the Committee of the Whole, where it was the last item on the calendar. Realizing from the vote to stall that the act faced an uphill struggle, the Pierce administration made it clear to all Democrats that passage of the bill was essential to the party and would dictate how federal patronage would be handled.

The debate raged through April and into May. In the end, it passed by a 113 to 100. Northern Democrats split in favor of the bill by a narrow 44 to 42 vote, while all 45 northern Whigs opposed it. In the South, Democrats voted in favor by 57 to 2 and Whigs by 12 to 7. President Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act would set of a border war between the pro-slavery supporters, dubbed border ruffians by opponents, and the anti-slavery “Jayhawkers“. Both groups sent settlers into Kansas in order to vote for their particular beliefs. Violence was inevitable.

04/20/16

The Compromise of 1850

This entry is part 10 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Henry Clay in the Senate-The Compromise of 1850The period after the Mexican War was a contentious time with between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North regarding the status of territories acquired during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). The United States had acquired vast territories as a result of its victory over Mexico. The Compromise of 1850 would organize all of these territories and hold off disunion for another decade.

The South saw it as an opportunity to tip the balance in favor of the slave states. The North would never agree to this train of events and it appeared that the country was headed for a breakup and the possibility of civil war.

During the deadlock of four years, the Second Party System broke up, Mormon pioneers settled Utah, the California Gold Rush settled northern California, and New Mexico under a federal military government turned back Texas’s attempt to assert control over territory Texas claimed as far west as the Rio Grande.

In an attempt to sort out the various territorial and policy issues Senator Henry Clay, a Kentucky Whig, proposed a number of compromises to resolve these issues. But rather than place everything in one bill Clay urged Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, to divide Clay’s bill into several smaller bills, and pass each separately. Clay who was very ill and would die two years later felt that he did not have the strength to push the bills through the Senate.

The Compromise of 1850 came to coalesce around a plan dividing Texas at its present-day boundaries, creating territorial governments with “popular sovereignty” (without the Wilmot Proviso) for New Mexico and Utah, admitting California as a free state, abolishing the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and enacting a new fugitive slave law.

Most Northern Whigs, led by William Henry Seward who delivered his famous “Higher Law” speech during the controversy, opposed the Compromise because it would not have applied the Wilmot Proviso to the western territories and because of the new fugitive slave law, which would have pressed ordinary citizens into duty on slave-hunting patrols. Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs supported the Compromise. Southern Whigs, many of whom were from the border states, supported it because of the stronger fugitive slave law.

The initial debates were quite acrimonious with compromise floor leader Henry S. Foote of Mississippi drawing a pistol on Senator Benton. Vice President Millard Fillmore and Senator Benton verbally sparred, with Fillmore charging that the Missourian was “out of order.”

In early June 9 representatives from 9 Southern states met at the Nashville Convention to consider what to do if the compromises were passed. Some talked about secession but the moderates won and they proposed a series of compromises, including extending the geographic dividing line designated by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Pacific Coast.

The initial “omnibus” bill was defeated on July 31st with the majority of Clay’s Whig Party opposed to the measure. Clay left the Senate to recuperate from tuberculosis at Newport, Rhode Island and Douglas took over the shepherding of the bill. He immediately divided the measure into five separate bills.

President Zachary Taylor who had been neutral on the “omnibus” bill died in early July 1850 and Vice President Millard Fillmore succeeded him. Fillmore was in favor of the compromise and gave it his full support. The Northern Democrats held together and supported each of the bills and gained Whigs or Southern Democrats to pass each one.

The six bills were passed and signed by Fillmore between September 9th and September 20th.

  1. California was admitted as a free state. It passed the House 150-56. It passed the Senate 34-18.
  2. The slave trade was abolished (the sale of slaves, not the institution of slavery) in the District of Columbia.
  3. The Territory of Utah was organized under the rule of popular sovereignty. It passed the House 97-85.
  4. The Territory of New Mexico was organized under the rule of popular sovereignty. It passed the House 108-97. It passed the Senate 30-20.
  5. A harsher Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the Senate 27-12, and by the House 109-76.
  6. Texas gave up much of the western land which it claimed and received compensation of $10,000,000 to pay off its national debt.

The Compromise of 1850 Map

Many historians contend that the Compromise of 1850 postponed the Civil War for the next decade. What we do know is that over the decade a number of events took place that strengthened the North and pushed the country to war.

  • The divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 introduced by Stephen Douglas, which repealed the Missouri Compromise.
  • This led to open warfare on the Kansas-Missouri border.
  • The Republican Party was formed in 1854 as a coalition of anti-slavery “Conscience Whigs“, Know Nothings and Free Soil Democrats.
  • During the decade the Northwest grew more wealthy and more populous and became closer in ideology to the Northeast.
  • The Southern stages for the most part stagnated.
  • The Fugitive Slave Law polarized the North and the South .
  • The free economy of the northern states to continue to industrialize adding many more miles of railroad, steel production, modern factories, and population.

 

 

 

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.