Cambridge University Press
9781107024786 - Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy - By Martin H. Quitt


Why did Stephen Douglas become a Democrat, not a Whig? We ought to know, because he was an architect of the antebellum party system; he forged an uncommon bond with voters; and he embraced and reformulated the principles of the Democratic Party.1 After his arrival in Illinois at the age of twenty, he became an essential builder of the Democratic Party in the 1830s, an influential voice for it the party in Congress during the 1840s and 1850s, and its standard bearer in 1860, when, accompanied by his wife, he was the first presidential candidate in American history to campaign across the country. While his three presidential rivals complied with the code against campaigning, he openly explained and defended the Democratic platform that he had shaped. Historians often focus less on his ideas than on his motives, but both merit attention, because the principles his party stood for mattered greatly to him.

Douglas believed that his political allegiance was “fixed” forever at the age of fifteen, during the presidential contest of 1828, when he and fellow apprentices supported Andrew Jackson against their employer’s preference, John Quincy Adams.2 Yet the full story of his adolescence makes it difficult to imagine his ever joining the Whigs, whom he associated with the discredited Federalists.3 His crisis-laden journey from youth in Vermont to manhood in Illinois bent him toward the Democrats’ vision of the Republic as an expanding union comprising disparate but equal states and territories.4 Following his trials with family, romance, school, and illness between his fourteenth and twenty-first birthdays enables us to understand why he believed that every place did not suit every individual, that America should be large and diverse enough to enable every person to find the particular locale in which he or she could thrive. The emotionally intense years of his adolescence, which he revisited consciously time and again as an adult, provided the psychological foundation for his lifelong political disposition.5

This is not to suggest that his youthful development necessarily foreclosed later political turns. Douglas had an uncommon mind: he could assimilate a staggering amount of information, store it in a capacious memory, and draw on it at will to construct a telling argument. His effectiveness in legislative debates, party meetings, and on the stump came from a quick tongue, a charismatic personality, recall, and preparation. He usually did his homework and thought through his positions before he went public. He fortified himself with the history of American independence, constitution making, and congressional legislation. In short, he had the intellectual firepower to reverse or modify his viewpoints with credibility. Yet there was a striking consistency to Douglas’s beliefs in national expansion, national unity, and local self-government. These pillars of his political faith had lasting emotional and empirical truth for him.6

This consistency reinforced his sense of confidence in what he had to say. He displayed this attitude most dramatically in breaking the code against presidential campaigning. The fear of misspeaking kept his three opponents on the sidelines in 1860. In contrast, he traveled to more than 150 towns in twenty-three states in every section, except the Far West. And he spoke at stop after stop, from a few minutes to three hours, depending on his voice and the size of the crowd. Opposition newspapers waited to report his contradictions, especially between what he might say in the North and the South. The grueling campaign would surely reveal any doubts he himself harbored about his message, and the press was there to expose him. Yet Douglas never stopped talking. He evinced a seemingly guileless trust in the straightforwardness, clarity, and logic of what he spoke.

Douglas’s confidence in what he said was strengthened by how he was received. His connection to the people in section after section, state after state, town after town was similar to what it had always been in Illinois – he made them feel good about their local institutions, and they reciprocated by cheering even if they did not vote for him. This mutual admiration and affection was at the core of his populism. He did not fake it and they knew it.

Although he and the white crowds he addressed shared a presumption of superiority over blacks, in one conspicuous way Douglas set himself apart from the American people in 1860: he took no stand on the morality or desirability of slavery. Without the benefit of polling, we can infer that while most white Americans were racist, they had divergent opinions about slavery, and few were indifferent to it.7 Abraham Lincoln represented the position of most of the 1.8 million men who voted for him: he believed that blacks were inferior to whites but that slavery was abominable and ought not to be permitted to expand. Outside the South, many of the 1.3 million Douglas voters, unlike their candidate, also were antislavery.8 Whatever their moral scruples about slavery, however, they supported Douglas’s plea to push it aside from federal policymaking in the hope of dampening Southern ardor for secession.

Douglas’s neutrality on slavery is the most off-putting facet of his career. It is difficult to approach someone who claimed to care not whether the institution was voted up or down, only that the decision be left to local majorities. How could Douglas not really care about slavery? In 1853 Frederick Douglass thanked Douglas publicly for sending him a copy of his speeches and expressed hope that the senator would live to “see not only that his course was morally, a crime, but that it is, politically, a mistake.”9 Even if Douglas was not expressing his personal sentiments but only his preferred national policy, Abraham Lincoln pressed him to acknowledge that slavery was wrong and that people did not have the right to choose wrong. “That is the real issue…. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world.”10 Douglas did not relent. “[Lincoln] tells you that I will not argue the question whether slavery is right or wrong. I tell you why I will not do it. I hold that under the Constitution of the United States, each State of the Union has a right to do as it pleases on the subject of slavery.”11

Which was the greater sin, secession or slavery? To Douglas the answer was clear. He denounced the proposition to dissolve the American Union as “moral treason.”12 For more than a decade he foresaw civil war if the question of slavery in the territories was controlled by ultras on either side. He wanted to remove the issue from Washington politics because it endangered national coherence. He believed that the overriding purpose of the Constitution had been to achieve the Union; therefore, its preservation was the highest constitutional value.13 He saw himself in the tradition of the founders, who were willing to compromise on slavery.14 As Eric Foner and Olivia Mahoney have written, “Douglas was the last great political leader to build a career on sectional compromise.”15 On the question of perpetuating the Union, however, he was uncompromising.

Opponents blamed outsize ambition for his position on slavery and his professed constitutional principles, which they dismissed as opportunistic and disingenuous. Some historians also have considered Douglas to be so driven by self-aggrandizement that he pushed principles aside in order to achieve personal gain. Even a sympathetic biographer has noted that he wanted to affect an arm’s-length distance from slave owning while he received income from managing a Mississippi plantation that his sons inherited from their maternal grandfather.16 His relationship to slavery there was in fact more complicit than he admitted even to himself, let alone the public. It merits special examination.17 Nevertheless, it is necessary to bear in mind that his neutrality toward slavery long preceded his direct involvement with the institution. He is also accused of repealing the long-standing federal ban on slavery in territory covered by the Kansas–Nebraska Act in order to pave the way for a transcontinental railroad that purportedly would enhance the value of land he owned. His critics, however, have not given sufficient weight to a steadiness in his core beliefs. From early in his congressional career, he leaned toward granting territories a large measure of self-rule and urged colleagues to leave the slavery question to local resolution. “Nonintervention” and “popular sovereignty” became catchwords for principles he had long held.18

“Popular sovereignty” was for him less a product of political calculation than a reflex conditioned by an intimate relationship that he enjoyed with voters. The candidate who mingled with people from Massachusetts to Iowa and from Wisconsin to Alabama in 1860 had reveled in the crowd’s embrace since he first stood up to speak in Illinois at the age of twenty. Unlike his rivals, he thrived on physicality with white men: he rose on their shoulders, sat on their laps, and clasped their hands.19

His physical ease with crowds flowed from his comfort with their choices. His own overnight prominence in Illinois had been due to the reception of a speech. The people who had carried him on their shoulders in Jacksonville instantaneously transformed him into a Morgan County celebrity, motivating him to settle there. This popular acclaim came unexpectedly and left him permanently grateful. When he urged yielding to local majorities, he had a personal framework. His insistence that geographical diversity was essential to American freedom was neither abstract nor dispassionate: he felt strongly that white men like himself needed to be able to find a place where they could bring their own baggage. And he knew a fundamental truth about his contemporaries: “In the nineteenth-century,” Nicole Etcheson concludes, “few whites cared about the suffering of slaves, but they did care about their own political rights.”20

From the moment he was appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841 until his death twenty years later, Douglas preferred to be called “Judge.” Everyone who knew him, including family members, used that designation. In Congress the title had a double meaning. It conveyed respect for his previous service and an expectation for his manner as a legislator. His first assignment as a freshman congressman was to judge the legality of the election of four delegations. He wrote the majority report for his committee, laying out the Democratic Party’s interpretation of the Constitution. As a legislator he balanced unevenly his primary responsibility as a policymaker with the obligation to determine what was constitutional. Like his congressional colleagues, Douglas was capable of invoking the Constitution to support or oppose bills. Yet, like many of them, he also took seriously the need to understand constitutional meaning. He did not use the document cynically as a weapon in debate. Although politicians did not follow the same rules as jurists in ferreting out the intention of constitutional text, Douglas approached the task with the earnestness of a judge.21 The inherent tension between those roles occasionally produced strained arguments that weakened his credibility.22

For Democratic lawmakers, representing constituents and respecting the Constitution were not principles that could be easily reconciled. If Douglas’s early life explains his partisan allegiance and constitutional predisposition, his career illustrates the complex interplay between policymaking, partisan advocacy, and constitutional adherence experienced by congressional leaders. Douglas took his own constitutional principles seriously enough to weight them heavily before formulating various policy proposals.

His interpretation of the Constitution was rejected in 1860 and ultimately supplanted by the Republican vision enshrined in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, but he spoke for an understanding of American government that was widely shared before the Civil War. Indeed, although circumvention of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case became a centerpiece of Douglas’s last two campaigns, his constitutionalism was largely consistent with the jurisprudence of the Taney Court.23 Had he won the presidency he would have pressed his view on territorial rights into a new constitutional construction.24

Douglas’s commitment to popular sovereignty came into conflict in 1857 with his even older commitment to party loyalty when President Buchanan, whom he helped elect, submitted the proslavery Lecompton constitution to accompany the admission of Kansas to statehood. The process by which the Lecompton document was produced was notoriously unrepresentative of the antislavery majority in the territory. If Douglas had backed it, he would have strengthened his ties to the administration and the Southern wing of his party and would have ensured his nomination at the next Democratic national convention. Lecompton, however, made a mockery of popular sovereignty, and Douglas never hesitated. His opposition to it cost him more politically than he gained; but it also involved a conflict of competing principles.25 He had come of age in Illinois as an organizer of the new Democratic Party and now was one of its transcendent figures nationally. To split with the titular leader of his party was not an easy decision for him, no matter how deeply he felt about popular sovereignty. Yet he did so, winning praise from Republicans, some of whom wanted him to become their candidate for the Senate from Illinois in 1858, and historians, who applaud his stand against Buchanan as courageous.26 His action, albeit principled and gutsy, contributed to what he certainly did not envision or want – the breakup of the Democratic Party, which imperiled the Union, the overriding value of his constitutionalism and politics. As brilliant as he was, Douglas could not anticipate, let alone control, the full consequences of his policy decisions.27 His life and career exemplify the one certainty of history – its unpredictability.

Just as unexpected popular acclaim in Illinois propelled his transition into manhood, the unexpected greeting he received in Vermont during his presidential campaign tour closed the circle of his personal story, and the reception he met in all sections strengthened his resolve to preserve his beloved Union. His wife’s contribution to his last campaign deserves recognition. Adele Douglas, unlike his first wife, was his soul mate and political partner. Despite the death of the couple’s only child in June, she became the first wife to tour with a presidential candidate.28 Assuming a role similar to that of her great-aunt Dolly Madison, she hosted levees, charmed politicians and reporters, stunned crowds with her beauty and grace, and encouraged her husband to go on without her after she sustained a serious injury in Alabama.29 Most of the hundreds of thousands who saw them had no idea of their private grief because, while his presidential rivals stayed home and stayed silent, he stayed the course, pleading with Southerners to remain in the Union should Lincoln win.

After Lincoln won, Douglas did not ease up on either his need to remain a player or his desire to preserve the Union. From a dogged but futile effort to work out a compromise in Congress to a conspicuous attempt at courting and co-opting the new president, he tried to prevent national dissolution. It was not his finest hour, however, for he contradicted principles he had long stood for and tried to present himself in a more influential role than he actually had. Once the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, he accepted the irreconcilability of the conflict and spoke eloquently in defense of the president’s call to arms. In his last major speech, two weeks before the onset of his final illness, he noted the credibility that he brought to a message of patriotism: “I believe I may with confidence appeal to the people of every section of the country to bear testimony that I have been as thoroughly national in my political opinions and actions as any man that has lived in my day.”30 It was a fitting reflection on what his overall career represented. He was in fact a man for every section.31

Although it encompasses all aspects of Douglas’s personal and professional life, this is a thematic biography that does not unfold in strict linear progression.32Accordingly the chapters vary in length. Douglas’s adolescent crisis, family relations, and education are covered separately in chronologically overlapping chapters. Chapter 4, on his rise in Illinois, focuses on the 1830s. Each of the next two chapters, on his constitutionalism, is organized around topics rather than timelines. Chapter 7, on his campaign of 1860, offers a summary of presidential canvassing from Washington to Lincoln in order to place Douglas’s trailblazing travels in historical context. Chapter 8 examines his need to find a place for himself in the post-election shadow of Lincoln. Chapter 9 reassesses Douglas’s involvement with slavery in Mississippi and its relationship to his politics. This is the shortest chapter but provides some details of what happened to his sons and second wife after he died.

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