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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of Southern History
Vol. 1 No. 3 (Aug. 1935), pp261‑275

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p261 Stephen A. Douglas' Efforts For Peace

By George Fort Milton

My subject tonight1 is "Stephen A. Douglas' Efforts for Peace." My topic can best be considered by first discussing the mainsprings animating the Little Giant, briefly examining the interplay of constants and variables in the making of a historical event, and then sketching the series of steps Douglas took in what finally proved a vain effort to avert the appeal to arms. My time will not permit consideration of any of the might‑have-beens of secession, and anyway these properly belong to what Sir Henry Maine has well termed the hypothetics of history.

At the outset, let me say that earnest but quite unprofessional research the past ten years into the causes of the American Civil War has led me to two conclusions: first, that Douglas contrived a feasible formula for sectional adjustments which, if embraced, would certainly have postponed, and probably have averted the Civil War; and again, that this war was not an irrepressible conflict but one made by men.

To begin with, what manner of man was this Douglas? I shall not describe his fine head, great body, great body, lilliputian limbs. I shall merely hint his extraordinary voice, his deep and unfathomable eyes, and that mysterious something which made him one of the great human lodestones of our annals. His political prescience, his mastery of the techniques of campaign organization, his prowess in the rough and tumble of debate — all these were noteworthy, and yet they can be passed by while we ponder the essential things that animated him.

Historians must discern and describe the causes as well as the consequences, the why as well as the how, of history. And as we seek to unravel causes, the most illuminating and significant of our studies, we cannot help examining the human dynamics of great events. Apart from and above the p262animal satisfactions, comforts and securities, it would seem that man seeks chiefly three things: income, deference and power. Power is the greatest engine of the three.

Now no one who studies Douglas' career can but be conscious that power meant a very great deal to him. His chief critics, indicting him for this not entirely unique human trait, have said that his whole adult life was devoted to running for president; that there was no principle, policy or friend he would not sacrifice for the presidency; that his unscrupulous ambition brought him a failure he well deserved.

Like Caesar, Douglas was ambitious. Again like Caesar, Douglas had his Brutus; not only one, but a battalion, both of lean and hungry men, like Jefferson Davis, and such flabby, pompous Brutuses as James Buchanan, whose dagger-thrusts occasioned the Charleston breakup, the Sarajevo of the Civil War.

Of course Douglas was ambitious, but a more important question is: Why did he seek this power? What did the Little Giant want? Some men want power for its own sake, for the mere physical satisfaction of being able to dominate the wills and actions of other men. Still others seek command, not alone to enjoy such psychic satisfactions but also because of ends for which they wish to exert their force.

Like Jefferson and Lincoln, like Wilson and Roosevelt, Douglas was ambitious. An attractive, unformed boy when he began his career on the prairies, his first few years were given to finding out how to get on in the world. But as the years wore on, he climbed upward rung by rung upon what the sociologists term the ladder of satisfaction. This organic growth of character changed the focus of his purpose until, in the end, he sought power chiefly that he might employ it for the general good. Particularly was this the situation from 1857 until 1861, the chief period of Douglas' great endeavor to keep the Union whole, in peace.

This is a good place for us to examine a persistent fallacy about historical events. I allude to the theory that because a certain event did occur, it was inevitable. This persistent but unscientific belief insists that somewhere in the affairs of men there is a blind, unseen force which has preordained the exact shape of Man's social development. Probably the psychopathologist would tell us that such a theory as to history is p263but another facet of that struggle for certainty which, while at its crescendo in young children, persists through life as a conditioner of our thought patterns.

This quest for certainty, bottoming every type of appeal to authority, is a perfectly understandable human reaction to a world in which certainty so rarely exists. But while we can understand the psychological background of these adolescent yearnings, yet as historians we must think and write as adults, and must strip the truth of the myths enshrining it. The conception of the plurality and interaction of causes has become part of the mental furniture of the natural scientist, and it should become so for the social scientist as well. Furthermore, as Lord Acton has said, "there is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success" — or of the inevitability of occurrence.

Now I am not urging the contrary theory that all human events are at the caprice of chance. Some Darwinian biologists portray the processes of natural selection and survival of the fittest almost to fit that picture. But to hold that history is totally anarchic would be quite as unsound as would the reverse contention that life is in the strait jacket of an unchanging Fate.

It would seem, however, that any particular historical episode, or any plexus of events which occasions a deflection of the stream of historical development, is the fruit of the interaction of two types of causes. To borrow labels from mathematics, let us call the first type constants, the second variables. Doubtless this terminology can be improved. In Social Research, Dr. Paul Tillich suggests that every historical event comes from the interaction of "certain inherent structural forces characteristic of the definite condition of society," and from "accidents, natural occurrences, the activities of particular individuals and the influence of external historical happenings." Both types of forces must be present; they are the parents of the event.

The constants are functional as well as structural; they flow from geography, climate and productions. They also embrace, for the particular event, the contours of our social terrain, the intellectual climate, mores and emotional erosions of any special segment of our society. Other constants are to be found in man the individual, his habits, instinctive reactions, nonrational inferences, impulses and emotions.

p264 But variables continually intersect the orbits of these constants, thus masking any particular historical event with the cloak of unpredictability. Main currents may be projected and predicted but immediate events very definitely cannot always be. Our public as our private lives contain areas — slight, perhaps, but yet quite important — within which variables can be subjected to the will and mind of man; thus the jars of too rapid change can be somewhat cushioned and the unending process of adaptation to environment can proceed with less dislocation or distress to any momentary personnel.

The Civil War has for decades been presented as a child of Fate, and to this day two predictions concerning it are hailed. The first was that of William H. Seward, to the effect that America had two mutually exclusive economic, social and moral systems, and that they were engaged in an "irrepressible conflict." The second was Lincoln's famous House Divided doctrine. Its agency in precipitating the war has been ignored, but a war did come, the sword did end the more obvious external forms of chattel slavery, and the presumption is that our House has ceased to be divided against itself. This, of course, is the crowning argument, both for Lincoln's superhuman prescience, and for the hand of Fate in the Civil War.

Despite these absolutist theses, let me suggest, with all humility, that Stephen A. Douglas almost kept America out of this conflict; and that although war came, it was needless and, but for chance events, probably would never have occurred. The variables had to be added to the constants before the appeal to Mars.

We should, at this point, remind ourselves that in the later fifties, Douglas was intellectually adult and had sought to relate himself constructively to the social pattern of his times. "I try to keep up with the spirit of the age," he told a friend; "to keep in view the history of the country, to see what we have done, whither we are going, and with what velocity we are moving" toward altered social patterns.

This realistic statesman knew that the slavery issue was about the only one which had a sufficient eruptive force to endanger the permanence of the Union. And he knew, too, that it was a peculiarly tangled issue. The elements in the economic complex were quite diverse. They included the p265variant soils, climates and agricultural productions of the free and the slave states; the comparative efficiencies of free and slave labor; sectional comparisons as to rates of growth and wealth increase; land exhaustion and the impact of new transportation routes on the western-southern relation. Socially, the South did not know exactly what to do about the Negro. It was not an age of much social inventiveness, and neither northern Abolitionists nor southern Conservatives brought forward a technique for eliminating slavery in such a way as to ease the pain of social dislocation and reorganization.

Now the economic and social factors to which I have alluded were the constants of the slavery question, its structural and functional conditions. The variables which were added to them were a series of emotion-building circumstances, the cumulation of one after another producing a tension, an excitement, a passion, which checkmated Conservatives and let the Ultras have their war.

Six incidents, structurally mere smudges on the face of history, aroused the passion of the masses in the two sections more than did the more fundamental factors. Uncle Tom's Cabin, "Bleeding Kansas," "Bully" Brooks' assault on Sumner, the Dred Scott case, Harper's Ferry, Buchanan's hatred for the Little Giant — but for these there might have been no Civil War.

Time does not permit me to discuss each of these "smudges." But I shall point out the enormous weight Buchanan's hatred had in causing the war. Now one man's personal psychosis toward another certainly cannot be called Fate, or inevitability, or anything other than an utterly unpredictable variable. And so what I say about Buchanan illustrates the general theory of the interplay of constants and variables in producing events.

First, let us examine Douglas' attitude toward the general problem a little further. He knew slavery was as much a social as an economic problem. Furthermore, he was well aware of the emotional pressures that could be generated by the dispute over chattel slavery. He had had much experience with the so‑called moral idea in politics, both in 1850 and 1854, when the antislavery forces of the North had been fired by appeals to passion. In both instances, however, time p266had cooled perfervid emotions, the insufficiency of their premises had become apparent and the people's sober common sense had reasserted itself.

Thus the Little Giant realized the difficulty of the solution of the economic and social features, but believed that, given time, both could be worked out without war. He knew the danger in the emotional appeal but his experience caused him to hope that economic common sense and an aroused loyalty to the Union, would check the emotional storm. An economic realist, he believed that, given time, the South would abandon slavery because it did not pay. He deplored slavery and looked for its eventual extinction. But he thought this could best come as a result of natural processes; "once the sword is drawn," he said, "no one can see the end."

Parenthetically, two things should be said. First, some very shrewd and cogent professional historians are persuaded, as I am, that had there been no Civil War slavery would none the less have been extinguished, perhaps by 1885, and on the motion of the South itself. The second is that Douglas was very right; once the sword was drawn, no one could see the end. Certainly the curiously misbegotten and uneven development of postwar America would have been avoided. The hothouse forcing of war years; the politically incestuous union of high tariff and bloody shirt that followed; the succeeding years when Lincoln's party of freedom became the instrument of property against man; the South's struggle to redress Reconstruction's balance through a one-party system and a now baneful solid South: all these things flowed, in varying degrees, and with enormously quickened velocities, from the drawing of a sword which never should have been drawn.

But no matter — let us return to the fifties. As I have suggested, Douglas realized that delay was vital, and he depended on the support of the Conservatives in both sections, to gain time for natural economic and social tendencies to bring their results. His fundamental purpose was the preservation of the Union. Like Jefferson, he distinguished between philosophies or end purposes, and formulae of application. He never varied his basic purpose of maintaining the Union. But he did not hesitate to alter, when circumstances compelled, the means by which to secure the end.

p267 He was convinced that the security of the Union depended on the continued vitality and success of a national political organism, with a doctrine which could be uttered as safely in Charleston as in Boston. But now the Whig party had given way to a sectional organization whose doctrine could not cross the Ohio river. There was danger that a segment of the southern Ultras would lead an independent Southern Rights crusade. But the Democratic party had a national establishment, and in popular sovereignty it possessed a formula which should win time for the problems of slavery to be solved peaceably.

Eighteen fifty-seven was a tragic year for Douglas, the Democratic party, and the nation's future. That year a Democratic president broke faith with the people and the Democratic party's usefulness as an instrument of nationality was cruelly compromised. Once more Kansas was the occasion, and of all the crimes against Kansas, Lecompton was about the most heinous. The fraudulent submission of the slavery constitution did violence to the Democratic formula that the people had the right to choose. Moreover, were it to succeed — I quote from Senator Charles E. Stuart, of Michigan, to Douglas, "utter destruction awaits the Democratic party in the North and Northwest." And this would shatter the greatest link of union. Principle and expediency combined to press the Little Giant on to save popular sovereignty.

While it was a fight Douglas did not hesitate to make, probably it would never have occurred except for the personal ill will President Buchanan held for him.

In body Buchanan was large, in spirit small; his bland face gave dignity to a commonplace mind. His acknowledged private virtues were paralleled by public conduct which brought dire disaster to the nation. Andrew Jackson found him not quite trustworthy. Polk's diary took note of his treachery. Those urging the Compromise of 1850 found traces of his help for the southern Fire-Eaters. He made his way to the White House only because of the American political method of nominating presidents in a free-for‑all without Marquess of Queensbury rules, which killed off the strong and gave the weak the victory.a

But as is often the case with weak men, obstinacy was one of Buchanan's main traits; his dignity turned into vanity, p268and he greatly disliked men abler than himself. Therefore he hated Douglas with a hate which grew until in 1858 — the mere mention of the Senator's name almost threw the President into an apoplectic fit. And yet Douglas had done great services for his successful rival; perhaps that was the origin of the latter's wrath.b Had the Little Giant stayed on in the list in the 1856 Democratic convention, Buchanan's choice would have been prevented. In the ensuing campaign Douglas mortgaged his Chicago property and put $80,000 into the Pennsylvania campaign, financial help which proved of critical importance.

But these favors seemed to sour what little remaining milk of human kindness there was in Buchanan's breast. Douglas' friends were frozen out of major patronage, his enemies given every reward. His protests about Lecompton were unavailing. On this issue the record was quite clear. Buchanan had pledged; he had written Walker's institutions, approved his Kansas speech. From every standpoint of faith and honor he should have repudiated the Lecompton fraud as Douglas did.

The issue came to crisis between them in a White House interview one historic December night. The Senator expostulated with the President, the latter's personal antagonism overcame him and there was a bitter scene; that night, I think, the Civil War took seed. You remember how Buchanan drew himself up to his full height, and warned Douglas to beware of the fate of Tallmadge and Rives. But the Little Giant answered staunchly, "Sir, I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead."

Buchanan's ensuing persecution of Douglas broke up the Democratic party and thus made the occasion for precipitating the war. Not without reason did Alexander H. Stephens call Buchanan a presidential Caliban. A little later, after Lincoln's election, Radicals charged that Buchanan was in the secession plot. I do not believe this; I do not believe that he ever realized what would be the consequences of his private war on Douglas. And undoubtedly this blind and flabby Sampson was appalled as the temple toppled down.

But to return to the struggle begun by Lecompton. Throughout the country the Federal patronage was employed to destroy the Little Giant. Thus his efforts to maintain the p269nationality of the Democratic party were opposed by the most powerful single force then in national politics — Federal patronage.c

In those sections of the North where abolition had been fiercest, the Democratic party had been reduced to little more than a Federal office-holding shell. This shell obeyed White House orders. In some of the middle and most of the western states, however, Democracy had remained virile, the patronage brigade was routed and the party chose Douglas and his program of nationality.

The South was divided between the Moderates and the Ultras. The first accepted slavery as an existing institution but thought that the effort to extend it to unsuitable areas was as stupid as it was harmful. The Ultras, the Fire-Eaters, were composed first, of sincere fanatics of the type of William L. Yancy,º R. Barnwell Rhett and Edmund Ruffin. Such men sincerely believed slavery a positive good and the Constitution an unyielding frame which must always be interpreted in the sense in which it was framed; they would have the South insist on its utmost rights, abstract as well as practical. Then there was another group, and more important, quite as able but with motives quite as much of politics as of principle: such men as Albert Gallatin Brown, Robert Toombs, Clement Clay, Louis Wigfall, John Slidell and Jefferson Davis. Doubtless these men had, in varying degrees, attachment to the extremist formulae, but they wanted power quite as much as Douglas ever did, and did not hesitate to hazard secession, perhaps war in the quest of it.

In numbers the Conservatives probably outnumbered the Ultras, but in several states these last had already captured the party machinery, because the Conservatives had been asleep and had not asserted themselves. Even so, the Moderates' potential strength was such that if they did assert themselves, they could recapture control in several states. But the Federal patronage machinery was unusually effective in the South. When Buchanan ordered his postmasters, attorneys, marshals and the like into county and state conventions, it threw predominantly conservative states into the hands of the Fire-Eaters. In 1860, this happened in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, and was the reason that the Yancy bolt at Charleston had consequences.

p270 The editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer personally counted five hundred and seven Buchanan officeholders either delegates to or lobbying with delegates at the Charleston convention. But for this pap-army, I do not believe there would have been a Charleston deadlock. America paid dearly for Buchanan's wrath. In truth, it was a tragedy of the epoch that, in North and South alike, extremist minorities unrepresentative of the people of their respective sections manipulated this political machinery, through party shells seized the tools of government, and committed the two sections to a brothers' war.

But I have gone ahead too far; let me retrace my steps to another Douglas struggle for nationality — that against the "Black republicans." A few months after the Lecompton struggle opened, the Senator had to defend himself against the sectionalism of the North.

During the 1858 campaign in Illinois, two developments were notable. The first was that he severed Lincoln' House Divided doctrine from its rhetoric, and showed that it was a preachment of sectional war. Lincoln had prepared his statement carefully. With the virtual exhaustion of the territorial slavery questions, the Republican raison d'etre was about to disappear. By House Divided, Lincoln gave it a new lease on life. Northern Abolitionists would take the first section as a proclamation of a future holy war against human bondage. Southern Conservatives were to be mollified by the vague phrases as to eventual in the section.

It was an admirable example of what platform-makers call a "rotten plank" — one that gives when stepped on. When Douglas called the turn on it, Lincoln protested that the strictures were unjust. But Douglas was right about it: the doctrine was, in fact, one main and immediate cause of the Civil War. Its general Republican acceptance, and then the election as president of the man who uttered it, dismayed and disarmed the southern Conservatives, enabled the Ultras to control the political machinery in that section and transformed secession from a theory into a fact. Lincoln's House Divided doctrine should be more notable in our history as a cause rather than a prophesy.º

The second significant occurrence in the campaign was Douglas' declaration that not even the Supreme Court of p271the United States could impose on a people a domestic system or institution from which their consent had been importantly withdrawn. Both northern and southern Ultras have insisted that Douglas "straddled" at Freeport. But the truth was that Lincoln's question enabled the Senator to cut through the gossamer of legal fiction and constitutional dialectic to expose the plain truth as the necessity for public consent as sanction to law. It was true then as to slavery in the territories. It was true in the South under Reconstruction. In our recent past it has again been true about national prohibition. Freeport demonstrated that Douglas was more intellectually adult than was his antagonist.d

The Senator's success in Illinois demonstrated to the northern Democracy that at last a formula had been found which could keep the party virile, and that here was a leader who could win. In addition, Douglas believed that he could convince the conservative South that his principles offered the real path to security. Following a trip through that section, he made up his mind to become a candidate for president so as to bring success to the principle of nationality.

Now why did he run himself instead of picking another? Aside from his ambition, Douglas knew that no southern Ultra candidate could win a single electoral vote north of the Border, unless on the Pacific coast. He knew too that no out-and‑out Doughface could carry enough doubtful northern states to be elected. He knew too, that with a southern Ultra or northern Doughface as Democratic candidate, a Black Republican would probably be elected president. This would lead to the immediate secession of the majority of the Cotton states.

On several occasions Douglas urged his followers to find a substitute for him, and they canvassed the situation. Before the Charleston breakup and before the Ultra bolt in Baltimore, the Democratic Moderates sought another man. But there was none other whose choice would not insure Lincoln's victory. By the most practical of practical tests, the Little Giant had to be the candidate.

Had Douglas confronted Lincoln in a clear-cut race, without other candidates, there can be little doubt but that Douglas would have won. As it was, and with four candidates in the field, a fact which made his success quite impossible, p272he received within five per cent of Lincoln's vote in the northwestern states. Had Bell been out, had the Ultras not put in Breckinridge in the race to insure Democratic disaster, it seems highly probable Douglas and not Lincoln would have entered the White House on March 4, 1861.

Had he done so, there would have been no secession then. The current excuse for secession was that it was a defensive measure the section must take because its rights and interests were put in peril by the election of a Black Republican, the author of the House Divided doctrine. Had Douglas, rather than a Black Republican become president, no such pretext would have existed and secession would not then have occurred.

Lincoln's election tremendously reduced the chance for peace. Probably no division point in the human record is more difficult to determine than that at which an event moves across the threshold of choice to the area of certainty. While I am quite convinced that prior to the disruption of the Democratic party in 1860, civil war was not inevitable, yet I am almost equally persuaded that, with Lincoln's election, the final variables had been put into the scales along with the constants; that the event had then been conceived and was about to be born. Such were the imponderables of party constraints and sectional emotions that Lincoln's election reduced the chance for maintaining the Union in peace to a very minor fraction.

And yet, until the Secessionists fired on Fort Sumter, there was always some minor chance that war might be averted. Douglas realized that remaining chance was much smaller, but so greatly did he cherish peace that he did not give up the fight until the guns began to sound. His first effort was to convince the South that Lincoln's election afforded no just cause for withdrawal; that if the South would stay in, Lincoln would be quite impotent to work injury.

Conservative hopes all over the country began to center on Douglas of Illinois and Crittenden of Kentucky; these men were expected to evolve another great compromise, a new formula to still the South's apprehensions without implementing the northern extremists with the material for a moral crusade. As soon as Douglas reached Washington early in December, he fell to work on the task. It was but p273natural that his formula should be popular sovereignty put into a constitutional enactment. But Douglas made it no point of pride; he was quite willing to adopt any other device which would accomplish the purpose, and was as unreservedly in favor of Senator Crittenden's plan as he was his own.

Rhodes thinks the Crittenden compromise would have satisfied the cotton states. Both Toombs and Davis were willing to accept it. But again we have a manifestation of the blighting effect of partisanship. The Republicans had won the election, and their months were watering for the fruits of victory. Their chief mechanicians feared compromise, because it would be the first step toward the loss of power by their party. They were for saving the Union; but if saving it peacefully would kill their party, they preferred to save it by force of arms. Accordingly, the main body of their office-hoping leaders beset their Senators and Congressmen, in Washington, to reject compromise. These were not reluctant. Appeals were made to the President-elect, at Springfield, but Lincoln announced himself "inflexible." This closed the last door for peace.

Douglas could not believe that the door was closed. He negotiated with Seward, and thought the latter was about to turn to compromise and peace. By this and Crittenden's efforts, the border Union men were nerved and encouraged, so that North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri refused to secede with the cotton states. The two Senators encouraged Virginia's peace convention. The whole situation seemed too unnecessary, so tragic, that they explored every alternative, no matter how impossible.

Perhaps the most interesting of these is one which I found in Greensboro when I was digging up Douglas material. It was a long draft, or memorandum, undated, but from internal evidence I would put it in late February. The first half is written in Adéle Douglas' hand, and the second in his own characteristically vigorous and force-filled chirography. It was clutching at straws, and yet centered on the essence of nationality — economic union. Differentiating between shadow and substance, between symbol and fact, he would recognize "the independence of the Confederate States on the fundamental condition of a Union for commercial purposes, between them and the United States, indissoluble except on common consent."

p274 Douglas's plane involved uniform economic regulation for the two republics and machinery for their enforcement. All laws and regulations concerning trade, commerce and navigation, tariff duties, patents and copyrights should be "uniform and common to both republics"; and there should be absolute freedom of navigation, trade and transport.

As an organ of enforcement, he proposed a council of one member from each state of the two republics, to be so classified that one-seventh would be replaced each year. This council was to pass its laws, ordinances and decrees only with "the concurrence of a majority of the councilors present from each republic." It would have a president and other officers and was to be economically supreme.

Perhaps the most important provision, however, was "that the Allied Republic guarantee the integrity of the territorial limits of each other against invasion and external violence." But the boundaries of each republic must be distinctly defined at the beginning, and must "never be changed without the consent of both."

Douglas never projected this plan beyond his own private circle. To the historian, its chief value is that it affords further example of Douglas' emphasis on economic factors, and of the lengths to which he thought of going to maintain peace.

But even after Lincoln's inauguration, Douglas would not cease his efforts. The Senator applauded the new President's inaugural; its statement of the permanence of union was something for northern Democrats to lean upon — its statement that the new administration would not force the test gave him hope for a cooling-off period; it should enable the border to be made secure, when there came a final break.

And so Douglas told the Senate that the inaugural was a message of peace, not war. Borderers kept writing him to give them time and the revolutionists could be routed. While Lincoln was being torn between war and peace, Douglas powerfully seconded the advocates of conciliation. Furthermore, for about a month Lincoln's policies were shaped along this axis. Sumter's evacuation was a large possibility until the mischance of Lincoln's orders about reinforcing Pickens. Had Pickens been held, an emblem of asserted national right, Sumter's evacuation would not have greatly mattered. But the blunder at Pickens forced Lincoln's hand. So long as p275Lincoln maintained pacific possibilities, Douglas was very much his Senate spokesman; and as "Public Man" — was it Amos Kendall? — noted in his diary, was far closer to the President's plans and purposes than were the radical republican Senators.

After Sumter, there was naught else to it. The Union could not be peacefully preserved, so now Douglas gave his every energy to preserving it by war. We are not concerned with these last three months, for in them Douglas helped beat plowshares into swords and bayonets. But we might, in conclusion, attend the judgment, twenty years after the Little Giant died, of a great southerner. With it I shall conclude.

In 1881, Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia, erstwhile vice president of the Confederacy, told a friend that the Civil War was a tragic error. At the time of its birth pangs, Stephens had "stood by and believed in the living Douglas, and as time advanced, he had grown firmer in the opinion that Douglas was right. If the extremists of the South had not prevented, Douglas would have prevailed; the Civil War would not have occurred and the Union would have been preserved. Douglas' true place in history . . . is that of the foremost patriot and statesman of his time."f


The Editor's Note:

1 An address delivered at a joint session of the American Historical Association and the Mississippi Valley Historical Association at Washington, D. C., December 27, 1934.


Thayer's Notes:

a Despite the curious approach, a fair and accurate assessment, alas. The mechanics of American politics are such as to ensure that most of the time we will get public officials who are adept at winning elections, but not necessarily anything else. In presidential races this has all too often resulted in demagogues with tyrannical leanings (Jackson, the second Roosevelt, and in the view of not a few, Lincoln), or, more commonly, non-entities (Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Cleveland, Coolidge, Carter, Clinton, the second Bush).

[decorative delimiter]

b A shrewd observation! Gratitude is a heavy burden to the weak, and leads to resentment; the best analysis of this quirk of human nature is to be found in Le voyage de Monsieur Perrichon, a very funny play by Eugène Labiche in which two suitors for the hand of Mr. Perrichon's daughter fare very differently when the first rescues him in an accident on the winter slopes, and the second, observing the rescuee's resentment now building against his rival, arranges on the contrary to get himself rescued by Mr. Perrichon.

[decorative delimiter]

c As a long-time resident of Chicago — the corruption of which city is exceptional only in its notoriety — I can tell you there is no need to specify "then"; nothing has changed.

[decorative delimiter]

d What came to be called the Freeport Doctrine was a clear reply, with no trumpery about it, formulated by Douglas in his second debate with Lincoln (at Freeport, Illinois) to a captious question by his opponent: since the United States Supreme Court had ruled in the Dred Scott decision that slavery could not be excluded from the territories, how can popular sovereignty be invoked to permit a territory to become a state where slavery would be illegal?

Douglas replied in essence that under the U. S. Constitution the several states have the lawful right to decide how they want to live. It was, as the author of our article says, an adult attitude; and one in the mainstream of our Constitution.

Lincoln won, of course: enough Southerners felt Douglas was anti-slavery and, more importantly in view of their numbers, enough Northerners felt he was pro-slavery, that he lost the Presidency — a sample of what I mentioned above: what wins elections is not necessarily good for the country. Under Lincoln's leadership, the United States, from a free union of consenting states, would become a nation in which the fundamental source of power is no longer free consent but, as elsewhere, the coercion of military power.

[decorative delimiter]

e The similarities between the Douglas plan and our modern United Nations or NATO will be apparent.

[decorative delimiter]

f This was the conclusion reached by our author the year before this article in a much longer work, The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War, which represents the most favorable assessment of Douglas to date; and for a while it was the more or less generally prevailing view. Historians have recently backed off somewhat; some have gone to the other extreme, decrying Douglas as an unscrupulous demagogue and a schemer, enmeshed in inconsistencies and paradoxes that were themselves among the causes of the Civil War.


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