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Manifest Destiny in Bronze:
The Bas-Reliefs on the Douglas Monument in Chicago

[T]here is a power in this nation greater than either the North or the South — a growing, increasing, swelling power, that will be able to speak the law to this nation, and to execute the law as spoken. That power is the country known as the great West — the Valley of the Mississippi, one and indivisible from the gulf to the great lakes, and stretching, on the one side and the other, to the extreme sources of the Ohio and Missouri — from the Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains. There, sir, is the hope of this nation — the resting place of the power that is not only to control, but to save, the Union.

Stephen A. Douglas,
Speech in the U. S. Senate, March 13, 1850

The four large bas-reliefs around the base of the column, designed and executed in 1877‑1881 by Leonard W. Volk, the architect of the entire Memorial, were meant to show "the Advance of American Civilization"; and unlike the four allegories we saw on page 1, they form a clear organic sequence, the directing thread of which is the dynamic quality of American territorial expansion that could only be congenial to the equally dynamic, passionate, purpose-driven Douglas. In his time individual responsibility, the unquenchable urge to govern our own affairs in freedom, and the surmounting of obstacles by sheer human energy together found their best expression in the great Western expansion that the orator would champion, almost inevitably as it were, thruout his life.

[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular bronze bas-relief depicting two Indian tepees in the center, with a mother and a small child before the opening of the one in front. To the viewer's left of them, an adult Indian draws his bow to shoot at a deer in the woods. To our right, an Indian paddles a canoe to shore where another draws it in, as wild geese fly overhead. It is a panel on the Stephen A. Douglas Memorial in Chicago, Illinois.]

The idyllic, yet primitive and static, Eden of America before the European presence: a romantic view of the native American.

[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular bronze bas-relief depicting the raising of a log cabin in the woods: two men strain with a long pole against an unfinished roof, while a woman seated by the door works at some domestic task as she talks to her daughter and a Dog looks on. To the viewer's right, a man drives a two-horse plow thru the fields, and two others, one of whom carries a rifle, converse. It is a panel on the Stephen A. Douglas Memorial in Chicago, Illinois.]

Pioneers tame the forest, raise log cabins, hunt and plow; opportunity for all. The wilderness we see here so rapidly being turned into farmland is very likely Illinois.

[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular bronze bas-relief depicting a dockside scene. From viewer's left to right: a steam locomotive is parked in front of a tall building; a group of three men, with a shovel, a wheelbarrow, and a pick respectively; five men moving or sitting on a group of about a dozen barrels. Behind them all, parts of a pair of sailing ships are seen. It is a panel on the Stephen A. Douglas Memorial in Chicago, Illinois.]

Great cities are born: here, almost certainly, Chicago is meant, the first great transportation and commercial hub of the West, with its Great Lakes shipping and in 1848 its first railroad.

[image ALT: A horizontal rectangular bronze bas-relief depicting an idealized chamber supported by Doric columns; about twenty men, seated are standing or leaning against the columns, converse in smaller knots or listen to proceedings on a central podium raised by four steps, on which a man in the center stands gavel in hand and on either side of him men seated at tables appear to record what he says. It is a panel on the Stephen A. Douglas Memorial in Chicago, Illinois.]

Thus, on the new continent, unfettered by the millennial shackles of old Europe, yet bringing with them the best of the Graeco-Roman and Christian world, her sons recreate civilization: a free people govern themselves, arriving at their laws by open debate; the Little Giant (close‑up) wields the gavel in a very idealized U. S. Senate chamber.

Yet these serene sculptures relate to the life of Douglas in a tragic way that only becomes obvious when we consider the dates of his life and that of his monument. He spoke of the power of the West to control and save the Union: but that didn't happen.

Douglas more than anyone saw the perils to his country as great, but he perceived them as transient. The slavery issue and sectionalism would solve themselves provided the United States could tame the West fast enough. Let people be, let states and territories self-determine, and slavery would collapse for geographical reasons (which is almost certainly true); mind you, he pushed the principle too far, actually believing for example that people of the African race could not survive California! Let people be, let states and territories self-determine, and the vigorous, open spaces of the West would draw the country together: neither North nor South, but America.

Sense and freedom of choice were not to be, though. Extremists on both sides would drag the United States into a fratricidal conflict; and if even today, one and a half centuries later, it remains our most devastating war, it's in part because it could probably have been avoided. But where Douglas trusted that states' rights, the cornerstone of our Constitution, would provide a framework in which our differences might be composed, the exalted, aprioristic and even somewhat messianic agendas prevailed over reason, and the inevitable solution, good though it surely was — the elimination of slavery and the beginning of equality for all in this country — was achieved by violence; not only a violence that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of Americans, but a violence to the U. S. Constitution itself: secession is the only American constitutional question to have been decided by force rather than law. The Constitution was defended by destroying it. That in turn set down a mammoth precedent for the many further inroads on it that we have seen since.

The scenes of American life we see on the Douglas Monument represent the course America could and should have taken in one continuous progress thru his lifetime and beyond; but it's a past that never was. When these scenes were carved, America had once again started to live out her positive destiny: but with scars.

I deny the right of Congress . . . to force a good thing upon a people who are unwilling to receive it. The great principle is the right of every community to judge and decide for itself, whether a thing is right or wrong, whether it would be good or evil for them to adopt it; and the right of free action, the right of free thought, the right of free judgment upon the question is dearer to every true American than any other under a free government.

Stephen A. Douglas,
Homecoming Speech at Chicago, July 9, 1858

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Page updated: 21 Jan 10