A Community for Abraham Lincoln & American History — For Collectors, By Collectors. More About Us.

Feature Articles

Douglas’s Role Reassessed

May 12, 2023

Lincoln once said that he did not control events, but was controlled by them. That seems to imply that individuals do not exert significant influence in how history plays out. 

In discussing the causes of the Civil War, there were four individuals whose actions played a significant role. These include Harriet Beecher Stowe, Stephen Douglas, Roger Taney and John Brown. Given the importance of the war and its devastation, this quartet could reasonably be termed “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly” in 1852. It sold over a million copies worldwide, energized the abolition movement and inflamed passions against the institution of slavery. 

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, was the central figure in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Taney was pro-slavery and engineered the acceptance of the case onto the court’s docket in order to make a personal statement. That decision declared slaves to be property with “no rights that a white man is bound to respect”. It established the right of slaveholders to transport their slaves into any part of the Union, even so-called free states. Though controversial, it effectively ended efforts by Congress, short of a Constitutional amendment, to restrict slavery to the states where it already existed. 

John Brown, of course, is known primarily as the organizer of the failed slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in the fall of 1859. It was this event, more than any other, that frightened slaveholders about the lengths that abolitionists would go to foment “servile insurrection”. Had it not been for Harper’s Ferry, Southern states may not have seceded following Lincoln’s election as President in 1860. They had not threatened secession in 1856 when John C. Fremont was the Republican candidate for President, but times had changed. 

Which brings us to Stephen Douglas. Historians now regard him kindly by virtue of his heroic efforts to rally the nation around the Lincoln administration and the cause of the Union at the outbreak of the Civil War. The effort ended in his untimely death in June 1861. It was too little, too late, and perhaps the least he could do after himself being one of the causes of the war. 

Douglas was the sponsor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. That piece of legislation repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The admission of the states of Kansas and Nebraska as either free or slave states would be subject to the will of the people in the territory, under the doctrine of “Popular Sovereignty”. This seemed like a simple and fair solution to the question. Unfortunately, Douglas was unable to predict the dire consequences of his proposal, as factions competed to “game the system”. Each side sent settlers into the territory, hoping to “stack the deck” in their favor. The result: “Bleeding Kansas”, the sack of Lawrence and bloody retribution enacted by “Pottawatomie Brown”. Eventually, pro-slavery factions got the upper hand and wrote the “Lecompton Constitution” which aimed to establish Kansas as a slave state. President Buchanan supported its acceptance, while Douglas opposed it, creating a rift in the Democratic Party which culminated in the nomination of two competing slates of Democratic presidential candidates in 1860.

We picture some ephemera related to the career of Douglas which relate to the subject discussed here. These include two pamphlets printed in 1854 dealing with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas’s proposal must have generated intense criticism, as he is forced to defend his “character” and policy to a large group of Chicago clergymen. The 1858 pamphlet deals with Douglas’s opposition to the Lecompton Constitution which was a stark reminder of his flawed policy of Popular Sovereignty. The masthead of a Democratic campaign newspaper from 1860, the “Whip & Spur”, shows Douglas holding the “Popular Sovreignty [sic] Non-Intervention” banner while the Railsplitter candidate, Lincoln, comments forlornly on a second possible defeat at the hands of Douglas.

Finally, we show various views taken from another Democratic newspaper, the “Daily Louisville Democrat” of June 24, 1860. It reports on the recently concluded Democratic National Convention held in Baltimore. Douglas was nominated for President while, in an effort to balance the ticket, Benjamin Fitzpatrick of Alabama, was chosen for Vice President.

Fitzpatrick (seen above), perhaps sensing imminent defeat and doom, declined the nomination. Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia was subsequently chosen for the V. P. spot. Only four delegations from the South attended the convention. Most Southern delegates withdrew, met elsewhere in the city, and nominated their own ticket of Breckinridge & Lane. Still, the “Louisville Democrat” was ebullient in its praise of the Douglas & Fitzpatrick ticket, lavishing patriotic woodcuts and slogans throughout the issue. It even included a “cute” cartoon of the Republican candidate, nominated the month prior. 

In the general election, Lincoln was assured victory when his opponents split three ways. In retrospect, it seems surprising  that the three opposition candidates did not endorse a fusion ticket, but that would have required some humility and mortification on the part of candidates who withdrew. These were “men of principle” who would rather endure defeat than compromise. They “stuck to their guns” and soon had a civil war on their hands. 

                                                                                                                   —Don Ackerman