Tuesday, April 23, 2013

This Day in Senate History (Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln Rival and Union Supporter, Born)

April 23, 1813--Stephen A. Douglas, “The Little Giant” who became the most significant political rival of fellow Illinois resident Abraham Lincoln, was born in Brandon, Vt. His status as one of history’s best-known famous also-rans means that unfortunately, on the bicentennial of his birth, little attention will be paid to how he fueled his adopted state’s enormous commercial growth, how he promoted the transcontinental expansion of America, and how his formidable speaking skills pushed his opponent to reach the top of his game.

If you’ve seen any Lincoln biopic that takes the future Great Emancipator up to his first inauguration, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Douglas, in at least one scene. Indeed, he made for an ideal cinematic foil to Lincoln. On the stump, the short, stocky senator, once described as a "a steam engine in breeches,”
dominated by his violent language and gestures, while Lincoln would slowly unwind his argument the way he would his lanky frame. Even love marked the two men as rivals, since, it appears, Douglas courted the young Mary Todd around the same time that Lincoln—more successfully--did.

In a prior post, I described how, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates that highlighted their 1858 race for the U.S. Senate, the Republican challenger, in effect, lost the battle but won the war. By responding affirmatively to Lincoln’s crafty question on whether a majority of a territory could exclude slavery, Douglas alienated Southern voters in the Presidential race two years from then. With another candidate dividing the votes of the Democratic Party, Lincoln was able to win the Presidency in November 1860.

The two men had been taking each other’s measures since 1834, as first-term members of the Illinois General Assembly. They had frequently been at odds, especially over slavery (Lincoln opposed the expansion of the “peculiar institution” into territories, while Douglas figured, through his doctrine of popular sovereignty, that the controversy would abate through political compromise). But by March 1861, when secession loomed, the two united against this mortal threat to the republic. Douglas had only a few months to live, but he displayed during that time his best qualities, including a passion for the welfare of his country.

For years, I’ve been fascinated by a story told in The Modern Researcher, John A. Garraty and Henry Graff, about one historian’s strenuous efforts to verify an anecdote in the anonymously published The Diary of a Public Man concerning Douglas at Lincoln’s first inauguration. Lincoln had no room on his tiny table to hold his stovepipe hat, the story went, so Douglas, sitting on the dais, graciously took the headgear and held it throughout the long ceremony.

Garraty and Graff, following this historian’s lead, believed that the incident probably didn’t happen. Other scholars more recently have concluded that it did. Part of the reason for the intense interest in this anecdote, I think, is that it tells us something fundamental about America’s fondest wishes for their politicians: that, despite their ambitions and clashing visions for the nation, they will display respect and grace at the most solemn ceremonies involving this country’s civil religion.

As it happens, there is at least a grain of truth to the story, in that the two came together to face a danger bigger than their decades-old rivalry. They met again, several weeks after the inauguration, with Lincoln even more beleaguered than before, with several more Southern states joining the rebellion against the federal government when Fort Sumter was fired upon.

It’s interesting to speculate on the course of this conversation. Did the President uncork the kind of out-of-left-field joke told in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln? Did they touch in any way on the major form of transportation they had both come to champion, the railroad--Lincoln as one of their most skilled legal advocates, Douglas as a longtime tireless Senate voice for a transcontinental railroad terminating in Chicago? 

Did the two engage in small talk about their days as lawyers in Illinois, or the towns they visited during their Senate debates? Did they commiserate over parents lost in childhood, and children (and, in the case of Douglas, a wife) dead more recently? Could they see, in the moments of silence between the jokes and the small talk, the affliction that the other endured because of  early disorder and subsequent sorrows? (Lincoln suffered from depression, while Douglas had taken to stronger quantities of alcohol.)

We don’t know exactly what was said or happened that day, except that Lincoln set aside several hours from his frenetic schedule for the meeting By the end of it, Lincoln eagerly seized Douglas’ offer of support to help preserve the Union. Could Douglas go on a speaking tour in the Midwest and border states in an attempt to keep them in the Union? Douglas agreed to try.

Douglas threw himself into the Union cause with his usual customary energy, but exhaustion—and his years of heavy drinking—caught up with him. He died of typhoid at his home in Chicago, only 48 years old, disappointed in nearly every way one could imagine: his hopes for the Presidency gone, his financial resources so depleted that his widow had a tough time surviving for a while after his passing, and even his dream of a united, sea-to-sea republic—“Young America,” the movement was called—in jeopardy.

In time, of course, Lincoln would preserve the Union, enabling that the nation to which he and Douglas gave their “last full measure of devotion” would endure. In this, as in their public ambitions and private agonies, they had more in common that they realized for much of their lives.

No comments: