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Lincoln and Douglas

The Debates that Defined America

About The Book

From the two-time winner of the prestigious Lincoln Prize, a stirring and surprising account of the debates that made Lincoln a national figure and defined the slavery issue that would bring the country to war.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was known as a successful Illinois lawyer who had achieved some prominence in state politics as a leader in the new Republican Party. Two years later, he was elected president and was on his way to becoming the greatest chief executive in American history.

What carried this one-term congressman from obscurity to fame was the campaign he mounted for the United States Senate against the country’s most formidable politician, Stephen A. Douglas, in the summer and fall of 1858. As this brilliant narrative by the prize-winning Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo dramatizes, Lincoln would emerge a predominant national figure, the leader of his party, the man who would bear the burden of the national confrontation.

Lincoln lost that Senate race to Douglas, though he came close to toppling the “Little Giant,” whom almost everyone thought was unbeatable. Guelzo’s Lincoln and Douglas brings alive their debates and this whole year of campaigns and underscores their centrality in the greatest conflict in American history.

The encounters between Lincoln and Douglas engage a key question in American political life: What is democracy's purpose? Is it to satisfy the desires of the majority? Or is it to achieve a just and moral public order? These were the real questions in 1858 that led to the Civil War. They remain questions for Americans today.


Lincoln and Douglas CHAPTER 1
Upon our platform there will stand
Clad in judicial toga
With clinking hand-cuffs in his hand
An old pro-slavery fogy,
And first beside him on the box
In attitude defiant
Like frog that tried t’outswell the ox
There stands our Little Giant.

H. P. H. Bromwell Papers, Library of Congress

And these two worthies shall engage
In a vehement tustle
Each other from the platform’s edge
By lawful right to hustle
Displaying thus before our sight
The right to drive away there
What has itself an equal right
By the same law to stay there.

H. P. H. Bromwell Papers, Library of Congress

THE HONORABLE SENATOR from Illinois, Stephen Arnold Douglas, began digging his political grave with the first item of business before the Senate of the United States on Wednesday, January 4, 1854. For a man approaching the height of his political powers, Senator Douglas did not look particularly uneasy, nor did the instrument he had in hand appear all that lethal. It was simply a “bill to organize the Territory of Nebraska,” which Douglas was reporting out of the Senate Committee on Territories and laying before the entire Senate for its action. But it would be the undoing of Douglas all the same, and of the peace of the American Republic.1

Ever since 1803, when Thomas Jefferson shrewdly bought up half the American West in the great Louisiana Purchase, Congress had been slowly organizing the immense landmass of “Louisiana” and setting up provisional governments there as territories—Missouri in 1812, Arkansas in 1819, Iowa in 1838, Oregon in 1848, Minnesota in 1849. A territory was a legal halfway house between the moment when lands like the Louisiana Purchase were acquired by the United States, and the moment they could be admitted to the Union as full-fledged states. Under Article IV of the Constitution, Congress was responsible for setting up temporary governments in newly acquired lands, subdividing or fixing their boundaries, recognizing each of the new units as an incorporated territory, appointing territorial governors and supervising the creation of territorial legislatures and constitutions, and eventually, if territorial organization was successful, guiding a territory’s application for statehood. This process stabilized the rule of law, allowed the people living there a measure of self-government, and created a test period before the territory was fully admitted to the Union as a state. Without it, land titles, law enforcement, incorporation, investment, and development would all hang fire.

The territorial process, however, was not necessarily rapid. By the time Minnesota was organized as a territory, in 1849, most of the immense bulk of the Louisiana Purchase, from the northern Rockies to the vast plains west of Nebraska, was still without territorial government. And then, in 1848, another expansion-minded president, James Knox Polk, used the Mexican War to acquire the great southwestern triangle of the continent, from the Rio Grande west to California and from Texas northwest to the Great Salt Lake. If the pace of territorial organization in the old Purchase lands was any indication, organizing the huge new American West could take another century.

No one felt the burden of pushing territorial organization in the West more urgently than Stephen A. Douglas, whose life up to this point read like a primer in the opportunities of western development. Douglas’s forebears arrived in Rhode Island as early as the 1640s, but they gradually drifted north and west in search of new land, finally setting up on four hundred acres of land near Brandon, Vermont, in the 1790s. The Douglases acquired enough wealth and standing in Vermont to send Douglas’s father to Middlebury College to become a physician, and the elder Douglas soon settled down to marriage and medicine in Brandon in 1811, followed by the birth of Stephen Arnold in 1813. Then, the bliss of the Douglas family abruptly stopped. In 1815, the doctor suffered a fatal heart attack. “I was only about two months old, and of course I cannot recollect him,” Douglas wrote years afterward. But “I have often been told he was holding me in his arms when he departed this world.” With the death of the senior Douglas died any prospect of Stephen following his father into a lucrative and respectable profession. Despite his “taste for reading”—his favorite works were “those telling of the triumphs of Napoleon, the conquests of Alexander, and the wars of Caesar”—and spending “night and Sundays in reading and study,” the young Stephen Douglas was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker.2

It was typical of Douglas that he at once began looking for a new way upward. He wheedled permission from his master to attend the Brandon Academy, and when his mother remarried in 1830 and moved to New York, young Stephen was given leave to enter the Canandaigua Academy and then, in 1833, to begin reading law with two local lawyers. But his stepfamily’s money began to run dry, and the process of examination and admission to the bar in New York was long and expensive. In mid-1833, he embarked on yet another Douglas move westward, to Cleveland. “When shall we expect you to come home to visit us, my son?” pleaded his mother. “On my way to Congress, Mother,” he replied.3

The way to Congress appeared to be no easier for Douglas than the way to law. Cleveland was a professional dead end. Douglas hoped to find work in St. Louis, but St. Louis was already overstocked with lawyers, as were the Illinois towns on the other side of the Mississippi River. It was not until he walked into the middle of a public auction at Winchester, Illinois, in the fall of 1833 and volunteered his services to an auctioneer who needed somebody literate enough to keep track of sales that Douglas finally found himself earning two dollars a day—as a clerk. This bounty gave him the bright idea of opening a school for clerks. In short order, Douglas had forty pupils and (at the end of the school quarter in March 1834) enough money to support him in a year’s law study. Before the end of the year, Douglas was licensed to practice in Illinois and was the proprietor of his own one-man law practice. He was all of twenty-one years old.4

Lawyering followed a short path to politics in Illinois, and never more so than in the volatile year of 1834. The President of the United States, the white-haired but iron-tempered hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, had thrown every ounce of his energies against the sucking of the American economy into the maw of the Industrial Revolution. Jackson was a devout old Jeffersonian Democrat—which is to say that he saw American life in much the same terms as Thomas Jefferson had when Jefferson wrote that God’s only chosen people were farmers on their own land. Democrats from Jefferson to Jackson looked uneasily on men who worked in shops for wages, since mere wage earners became dependent on the goodwill of wage payers and were vulnerable to political manipulation by their employers. They looked even more coldly on those who traded in bonds and securities (these were examples of imaginary wealth, whose value could be driven up and down without warning) or who made their living in merchandise and commerce (since they traded in fancy goods which no upstanding farmer really needed but which could trap him in a punitive cycle of debt and dependence). No man who did not own his own land, or who could not live from that land, could ever be truly free and independent.5

This hostility led to political war in 1834 between Jackson and the Second Bank of the United States, the pumping station of the national financial system created by Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s. Andrew Jackson was one of the few real heroes Americans could boast of in the disastrous War of 1812, and he had not defeated one enemy in scarlet coats only to concede to another in silver and gold. The Second Bank became, for Jackson and his allies, a monster with financial tentacles, seeking to reach into every corner of the Republic and entrap its virtuous farmers in paper chains of debt. When in 1834 the bank’s president, Nicholas Biddle, challenged Jackson by seeking an early renewal of the bank’s charter by Congress, Jackson vetoed the renewal legislation with all the vehemence with which he had bestowed gusts of grapeshot on the British.

All this should have been of little consequence to a novice lawyer in central Illinois in 1834. But when an attorney from Jacksonville stood up before a local club to which Stephen Douglas belonged and denounced Jackson’s veto of the bank as tyrannical and treasonous, Douglas was furious at hearing America’s premier military hero flogged verbally like a common bandit. “I could not remain silent when the old hero’s character, public and private, was traduced, and his measures misrepresented and denounced,” he recalled later, and in a trice, Douglas was on his feet making a speech of his own. A week later, an Illinois Democratic newspaper printed Douglas’s speech in “two entire columns” and “for two or three successive weeks,” and suddenly Douglas was a political celebrity He was elected state’s attorney for the First Judicial Circuit and then, in August 1836, won a seat in the state legislature. Seven months later, Andrew Jackson’s successor in the presidency, Martin Van Buren, rewarded Douglas’s faithful party service by appointing him register of the lucrative federal land office in Springfield. In 1838, Douglas ran for Congress on a platform which denounced corporate charters for “railroads, canals, insurance companies, hotel companies, steam mill companies &c., &c.” as “unjust, impolitic, and unwise”—and lost by a squeaker to John Todd Stuart. But in 1840, Douglas was back on the upward spiral when he was appointed by the Democratic governor Thomas Carlin to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Finally, in 1843, Douglas won the congressional seat he craved in a special election, defeating the formidable lawyer from the Mississippi River town of Quincy, Orville Hickman Browning. After he won reelection in 1846, the Illinois legislature’s Democratic majority (operating under the then-current constitutional rule that U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures rather than by a direct vote of the people) elected Douglas to Illinois’s junior U.S. Senate seat. At thirty-three, he only just met the Constitution’s age qualification for U.S. senators.6

Douglas was, from his start in Congress, an ardent antibanking, antitariff Jacksonian Democrat. “In this country,” he declared in 1837, “there are two opposing parties.” One was the Democrats, the “advocates of the rights of the people,” and the other was “the advocates of the privileges of Property.” By property, he meant “the principles of ‘consolidation,’ ‘monopoly,’ and ‘property privilege.’” And the weapon which would keep these dragons at bay was “a strict observance of every provision of our constitutions—state and national.” But the dragons of privilege were still formidable, and they included banks, corporations, and protective tariffs for manufacturing. And alongside the privileged marched rank upon rank of white-tied clergymen trying to use government power to impose Christian moral codes in defiance of the Jeffersonian separation of church and state, and appealing over the head of the people and the Constitution to God. “We should all recognize, respect, and revere the divine law,” Douglas agreed, but only as individuals, and only on questions of private moral virtue. The Bible “has not furnished us with a Constitution,” nor has it laid down “the form of government under which we shall live, and the character of our political and civil institutions.” But the voice of the people had. “The great fundamental principle” of government was that “every people ought to possess the right of forming and regulating their own internal concerns and domestic institutions in their own way.”7

And yet, for all of Douglas’s brass-lunged endorsement of the Democratic line, he was not a one-note party ideologue. Far from it. Douglas “neither felt nor thought deeply on any question.” He, for instance, “during his entire political life” criticized programs of government-financed public works (or “internal improvements”) on the grounds that these only favored the moneyed interests. But the moment it became clear that his Illinois constituents were lusting quite happily for the cornucopia of goods which “internal improvements” poured before them, Douglas suddenly discerned a difference “between those works which were essential to the protection of commerce” and those “asked for by parties having local interests to serve,” and he threw his votes behind federal appropriations to dredge the sandbars at the mouth of the Chicago River, federal land grants to the proposed Illinois Central Railroad, and the completion of the Illinois River canal.8

“He showed always a certain curious gift of alertness,” George Murray McConnell recalled—although it was never entirely clear whether that alertness was an attentiveness simply to his constituents’ needs or to the next main chance that would promote his own fortunes. People who thought that Douglas’s chief problem was his lack of height (like Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, who growled that “his legs are too short, sir. That part of his body, sir, which men wish to kick, is too near the ground!”) missed Douglas’s real shortcoming, that morally speaking, he had no chest. It was no accident that, once the authorization for the Illinois Central land grants had passed through Congress, Douglas placed an order with Washington banker W. W. Corcoran for Illinois state bonds. Once he had been elected to the Senate, Douglas moved his law practice to Chicago and began speculating in lakefront real estate (which he then sold to the Illinois Central for ten times the purchase price). He bought a large house at New Jersey and I Streets in Washington, where he entertained on imported china, smoked Havana cigars, poured Madeira by the cask—and shrewdly invested in District real estate by buying two blocks of rental housing in 1851. He married Martha Martin, whose plantation-owning father bestowed on Douglas the title to a 2,500-acre Mississippi plantation; and when Martha Douglas died in 1853, Douglas married Adele Cutts, a Washington socialite and “a Southern lady of good family” with “the air of a queen, with perfect features as if carved in marble, white and smooth as marble, too, with clear liquid eyes and shadowy lashes.”9 If ever a man had done well by doing for the common good, it was Stephen A. Douglas.

Douglas took as his pet project in Congress the creation of a railroad to connect Chicago (and the entire Mississippi valley) with the newly acquired lands of the Pacific coast, funded in part or in whole by federal tax dollars. This was, he frankly admitted, a retreat from the usual Democratic opposition “to the doctrine of internal improvements by the Federal Government within the different States of the Union.” But if Americans wanted “to make the great ports of the world tributary to our wealth,” then “we must penetrate the Pacific, its islands, and its continent, where the great mass of the human family reside,” and a Pacific railroad was the means to do it. If this raised eyebrows among the Democratic faithful, then that only showed that it was time for “a statesman who can bring young blood, young ideas, and young hearts to the councils of the Republic”—not to mention the Democratic party—and by 1852 a Douglas-for-president boom was in the works.10

What shielded Douglas from the suspicions of old-guard Democrats was the sheer sparkle of his charisma. Although standing only five foot four on legs which were three inches shorter than average, Douglas “had a large head, surmounted by an abundant mane” of brown hair, which gave him the “appearance of a lion prepared to roar or crush his prey” or a “short, thick-set … bulldog.” Even in his youth, his chip-on-the-shoulder willingness to take on a fight earned him the nickname “The Little Giant.” But he could just as readily beam with “real geniality, and wholesome grace, and forceful dignity” He was a “perfect ‘steam engine in breeches,” and “to see him threading the glittering crowd with a pleasant smile or a kind word for every body, one would have taken him for a trained courtier.” His voice was “deep and strong … melodious and sympathetic,” and he had the knack of drawing people into his circle of attention and flattering them with the thought that they were Stephen A. Douglas’s sole concern in the universe. “He would say, ‘I can tell you’; ‘I know that I can say to you’; ‘I have no hesitation in confiding in you’; ‘I want you to know’ etc.” He never lost an opportunity to cultivate “a popularity.” Hezekiah Wead (who, like Douglas, was born in Vermont but emigrated to Illinois to practice law) remembered that, in court, Douglas would “go round among the listeners & spectators, sit upon their knees and chat and laugh & joke with them,” even “while the counsel were arguing to the Jury.” Onboard a train, “scarcely a man, woman, or child in the cars escaped his attention, or passed by unspoken to.” His joy was “to stand in the centre of a listening throng, while he told some Western story or defended some public measure; to exchange jokes with a political adversary; or, ascending the rostrum, to hold thousands spellbound for hours.” The Illinois politician Shelby Cullom wrote that Douglas “was a wonderful man with the people…. When he came through the State, the whole Democratic party was alive and ready to rally to his support.”11

But Illinois only gave Stephen Douglas a platform; it could not give him the nation. And his charisma could only protect him; it could not promote him in the upper echelons of the party, where his departures from party orthodoxy were seen more dimly In Illinois, Douglas was able to build a formidable political machine across the state, constructed of federal patronage appointments that he oversaw and major corporations (like the Illinois Central Railroad) whose interests he was in a position to favor, regardless of Jacksonian orthodoxy. By the 1850s, Douglas ruled the Illinois Democratic party as “absolutely supreme … and his supremacy was a despotism.” But his allies failed to get a Douglas-for-president nomination past the national party convention in 1852, which instead nominated the handsome, heroic, and (as it turned out) talentless Franklin Pierce. A second, more serious Douglas-for-president campaign died a lingering death at the party convention in Cincinnati in 1856. And James Buchanan, who got the nomination instead, saw no reason to extend to Douglas more than polite formality. Buchanan’s chief advisers would be Jesse Bright of Indiana and John Slidell of Louisiana, both of whom preferred that Douglas get only the crumbs from Buchanan’s patronage table.12

There was, however, an obstacle to Douglas’s ascension to the very top of Democratic party leadership more forbidding than just resentment at his political opportunism, and that had to do with the Southern Democrats, who held the numbers, the money, and the balance of power within the party. And that, in turn, had everything to do with slavery.

Slavery was a legal institution in fourteen states in the Union. It was a repulsive system, but it was also powerful. The fact that the slave states were all contiguous, and lay south of the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River, together with the fact that slave labor in these states produced the single most valuable agricultural commodity on the planet—cotton—gave them a sense of shared regional defensiveness and an enormous political heft in the federal Congress. Likewise, the fact that Southern slavery was based on racial supremacy—of white slaveowners over enslaved blacks—provided a brutal reinforcement to Southern suspicions of the free states of the North. Since slavery’s power grew from the seeds of an agricultural commodity, the slave states’ instinctive party loyalty was pledged to the Democrats. From Thomas Jefferson to James Buchanan, Southern Democrats either led the party and dominated the presidency or else picked for president Northern Democrats who were securely buttoned to Southern interests. Northerners who criticized slavery and called for its abolition were easily marginalized by Southern plays to economic self-interest or white racial terrors.

Stephen A. Douglas might have been a Democrat, and a successful one, but he was still a Northerner from a free state, and that made Southern Democratic brows crinkle with apprehension. Of course, calling Douglas’s Illinois a “free” state meant only that slavery was illegal there. It did not mean that Illinois Democrats were interested in freeing slaves anyplace else, or in welcoming blacks of any description, free or slave, into the state to compete with them for land. When Douglas arrived in Illinois, in the 1830s, the state population stood at 269,974—of these, only 2,261 were free blacks. Another 488 blacks were deemed “apprentices” by various legal subterfuges and were, for all practical purposes, slaves on “free” soil. Twenty years later, the population of Illinois had bulged to over 850,000, but the laws only became more draconian. In 1853, the state legislature banned “any negro or mulatto, bond or free” from settling in Illinois on pain of a fifty-dollar fine or the threat of being sold “at public auction” into forced labor to “serve out” the fine.13

There is no record that Douglas felt any deep pangs of conflict over the toleration of slavery in a republic of liberty. While antislavery Northerners struggled to overcome the “gag rule” that prevented anti-slavery petitions from being introduced onto the floor of the House of Representatives, Douglas cheerfully voted to uphold it. The abolition of slavery was merely a British connivance, Douglas explained, “for the purpose of operating upon the peculiar institutions of some of the States of this Confederacy, and thus render the Union itself insecure.” Just as no church had the privilege of imposing its creed upon any American citizens, and no “consolidated” government in Washington had the power to force a program of publicly funded commercial development on the states, so no one had the authority to compel the slave states to abolish slavery. Or, he added in 1853, the authority to compel the free states to take in freed blacks: “Our people are a white people; our State is a white State,” Douglas declared. “We do not believe in the equality of the negro, socially or politically, with the white man.” In Illinois, “we mean to preserve the race pure, without any mixture with the negro.”14

The real question, however, was not whether Douglas could be trusted to keep Northern hands off slavery in the South but whether he would be willing to give the South what, in the 1850s, it really wanted, which was a free ticket to legalize slavery in the western territories. No matter how indifferent Douglas might be to the Andes of suffering inflicted by slavery, white Illinoisans not only wanted blacks kept out of Illinois but also wanted them kept out of the territories, since the territories were the next stop in the white farmers’ incessant rush for land. Yet white Southerners were just as convinced that slavery, in order to remain prosperous and healthy, needed constantly to expand its borders. This determination had created serious collisions in Congress as far back as 1819, when the Missouri Territory petitioned for admission to the Union as a state with a constitution that legalized slavery. Northerners (and they included an ominous number of Northern Democrats) saw no good sign for the future when the first new state to be organized out of the Louisiana Purchase wanted to legalize slavery. To the relief of the country in general, the greatest political compromise builder of the day, Kentucky’s Henry Clay, stage-rigged a formula for all future territorial admissions in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Clay simply took the southern boundary of Missouri, drew it straight through the Purchase, and decreed that hereafter only lands south of that line could be organized as slave territories and admitted to the Union as slave states. And with that neat partition, everyone could, presumably, be happy.

Happy, that is, until the great blowup over Texas.

At the time of the Missouri Compromise, Texas was a sparsely settled province of Mexico. The Mexicans were only just tearing themselves loose from the colonial dominion of Spain and setting up as a republic of their own, and they were happy to accept American immigrants as a way to settle Texas on the cheap. But in the intervening years, immigration from the United States turned into an uncontrollable flood, a very large part of it contemptuous of Mexican law and Mexican government, and much of it led by slave owners. Too late, the Mexican government tried to seal the border and bridle the Americans in Texas. That only provoked Texas into open revolt and a declaration of independence as a republic of its own. In due time, Texas turned to the United States as an applicant for statehood—bypassing territorial organization, which it scarcely needed—as a slave state.

Mexico never recognized the legitimacy of the Texan republic in the first place, and it was alarmed at the prospect of the rebel province attaching itself to the United States. When Texas was finally annexed by the United States, in 1845, the annexation triggered war between the United States and Mexico, and the war led to a humiliating defeat for Mexico and the cession of its remaining northernmost provinces to the United States. The shooting part of the war had not even stopped before a round of pompous and hysterical charades over slavery even more violent than the one in 1819 began, complete with threats of secession from the Union by the Southern states and demands for the complete exclusion of slavery from the Mexican Cession by Northerners. It took all the compromising skills of the aged Henry Clay to fashion a new compromise, and even then, the actual formula for that compromise—as well as the strategy for recruiting enough votes for it—would fall to a younger man, Stephen A. Douglas.15

The formula was called “popular sovereignty” and it was first devised not by Douglas but by an old Democratic party wheelhorse, Lewis Cass of Michigan. But it was seized by Douglas as the banner under which he saw himself marching into the White House. In the largest sense, popular sovereignty was simply another form of Jacksonian Democracy’s first article of belief, that “the voice of the people” in a democracy was the ultimate and only rule. And it rang the changes on the Democracy’s second article, which was the preference for local decision-making over policies made at the national level. No one but the people of each territory itself—not Northerners in the free states, not Southerners in the slave states, not the president in Washington, not even compromisers in Congress—ought to decide whether slavery should be legal in their territory or not.

“The principle of self-government,” explained Douglas, “is, that each community shall settle this question for itself … and we have no right to complain, either in the North or the South, whichever they do.” For Stephen A. Douglas, this view had the added advantage of relocating the entire debate over slavery’s future in the territories to the territories themselves, and out of the halls of Congress, where the issue was paralyzing all other initiatives for western development. And so while Henry Clay brought every ounce of his fading powers of eloquence to the fashioning of a new compromise, it was Douglas who cobbled together the actual components of the compromise and navigated them to adoption.16 The nation heaved a collective sign of relief, and when Clay died, in 1852, the laurels for statesmanship, compromise, and levelheadedness descended upon Stephen A. Douglas.

No one, least of all Douglas, could have suspected that this was, in fact, as far as his tide would carry him. This was partly because, by this point, Southern slaveholders had painted themselves for so long as the victims of Northern perfidy that nothing less than an absolute federal guarantee for legalized slavery in the West would satisfy them. But the other factor which proved Douglas’s undoing was his simple inability to rest on those laurels. Almost as if the success of popular sovereignty in 1850 had convinced him that it was the answer to every question, Douglas now proposed to organize the balance of the West—the old Louisiana Purchase lands still governed by the Compromise of 1820s ban on slavery—under the same doctrine.17

Precisely because Nebraska was reserved by the Missouri Compromise for free settlement only, Southerners in Congress truculently refused to support territorial organization there, leaving both the settlers’ and Douglas’s hopes for what he called “a continuous line of settlement from the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Ocean” in a legal limbo. But under the terms of Douglas’s Nebraska bill, Congress would junk the Missouri Compromise, substitute for it “the principles and model of the compromise measures of 1850,” and allow Nebraska to be organized as a territory whose people would make their own decision about slavery Southerners would no longer have any logical reason to oppose the organization of Nebraska, and in order to make that explicit, Douglas added a provision to the bill which expressly declared the Missouri Compromise to have been “superseded by the principles of 1850”:

The act preparatory to the admission of Missouri into the Union … being inconsistent with the principle of non-intervention by Congress with slavery in the states and territories, as recognized by the legislation of eighteen hundred and fifty, commonly called the compromise measures, is hereby declared inoperative and void; it being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any territory or state, not to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States.”18

It was that long, dangling sentence which threw Congress, and the nation, into a tumult.

Douglas was fully aware that the Northerners whom he persuaded to allow popular sovereignty to rule the Mexican Cession did so only with the mental reservation that most of the Cession was useless desert anyway and unlikely to offer much attraction to settlement by slave owners. They never dreamt that Douglas would expect them, four years later, to apply it with equal force to the old Purchase lands, where the opportunities for slave-based agriculture were considerably more substantial. If Southerners sulked because popular sovereignty gave them no more than a mere chance to have slavery legalized in Nebraska, Northerners were horrified to discover that slavery would be given a chance at all, much less a fifty-fifty one. The Missouri Compromise, which had stood for thirty years as the fire door banning slavery from the Louisiana Purchase, now hung off its hinges. New York senator William Henry Seward wrote to his constituents that “we who thought only … of securing some portion at least of the shore of the Gulf of Mexico and all of the Pacific coast to the institutions of freedom, will be, before 1859, brought to a doubtful struggle to prevent the extension of slavery to the shores of the great lakes, and thence westward to Puget’s sound.”19

The gasp of horror soon found a national tongue. Ohio senator Salmon P. Chase, a onetime Jacksonian but now turned abolitionist, published “An Appeal of the Independent Democrats” on January 24 in the National Era, Washington’s main antislavery newspaper, denouncing the Nebraska bill as a “gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own States, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” And Chase’s “Appeal” (which was signed by yet another senator, Charles Sumner, and four representatives) was only the beginning. “No pretext was urged for the repeal of the Missouri restriction, that it was asked for by the people of the Territory,” raged Michigan governor Kinsley Bingham; Douglas had only one purpose, and that was “to appease the inexorable demand of the slave interest for dominion” and bring “the Democratic party of the North … under the perfect subjugation to the interests of slavery.” Or perhaps he had another purpose: to solicit the favor of the slaveholding South as the last deal he had to make for the presidency. “To him,” wrote John Minor Botts of Virginia, “was the glittering prize of a nomination held up as a reward,” and Mississippi governor Henry Stuart Foote believed that Douglas had been bribed with a promise from President Pierce that he would endorse a Douglas presidential nomination for 1856. “He has sold the freemen of the North for office,” fumed one Illinoisan, “which Heaven grant he may never be able to reach.”20

Just what induced Douglas to swat at the Nebraska wasps’ nest has always been a mystery to both his admirers and his detractors. Apart from gaining the thanks of the Nebraska settlers, it was hard to know what game Douglas was about, or even if there was a game. “The whole country, which by the previous adjustment of 1850 had settled down in peace, was suddenly taken by surprise,” wrote Anna Ella Carroll. “No one dreamed of the compromise being disturbed, and that the triumph of Mr. Clay, and the tranquility happily secured by him over the country, were soon to come to an end.”21 So why the Nebraska bill? Because at bottom, Stephen A. Douglas had the temperament neither of a statesman nor of a demagogue but of a gambler. He was, said the shrewd old Ohio senator Thomas Ewing, “inconsiderate and reckless.” He stayed away from cards and horses, but in every other respect, no one loved a risk more than Douglas. Hezekiah Wead remembered that Douglas’s decisions as a judge on the bench were often a matter of “guess,” supported by “his quickness of apprehension, his amiable manners and his general urbanity.” His speculations in land were another game of risk, and even his reputation as a “formidable parliamentary pugilist” was a gamble he took with the fact that he was far from being physically “formidable.” Despite the commanding presence and the leonine posturing, the Little Giant was actually fragile of health. Chronic illness had disabled him early in his wanderings between Vermont and Illinois. He was constantly prey to colds and upper respiratory infections, and his climactic speeches seemed always to come when he “was at the time ill in bed” and had to drag himself to the floor of the Senate to speak. But he could not deny himself the thrill of combat, the always-upped stakes over more and more dramatic issues. The greatest risk he would take, however, would be the Nebraska territorial bill. It would, he predicted, “raise the hell of a storm.” And into that storm he sailed, smiling.22

The only concession Douglas made to the uproar over the Nebraska bill was to permit the division of the enormous Nebraska domain into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. Otherwise, rather than simply defend the bill as a useful piece of pragmatic politics, he bounded into the congressional arena as the lion, asserting that popular sovereignty was not a means only but a worthwhile end in itself. The question at stake in the organization of Kansas and Nebraska (he declared on March 3, 1854) was whether the people truly had the sole right to govern themselves as they saw fit, “whether the people shall be allowed to regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, according to the provisions of this bill, or whether the opposite doctrine of Congressional interference is to prevail.”23

Douglas’s discovery that popular sovereignty embodied a form of eternal political truth, and not just political sloganeering, “is not an afterthought with me, seized upon this session for the first time, as my calumniators have so frequently and boldly charged.” No, the principle of popular sovereignty is the embodiment of popular liberty, “the great fundamental principle of self-government,” leaving “the people entirely free to form and regulate their domestic institutions and internal concerns in their own way” It also, incidentally, got the slavery controversy out of the halls of Congress, because “the attempt on the part of Congress to interfere with the question of slavery” always produced deadlock and acrimony. But “whenever that cause had been removed” by letting the people decide for themselves, “the agitation has ceased.” When a petition from three thousand New England clergy protesting the repeal of the Missouri Compromise was introduced into the Senate by the venerable Edward Everett, Douglas’s reaction was to suggest pretty bluntly that they mind their own religious business and stop trying “to establish a theocracy to take charge of our politics and our legislation.” When the vote finally came in the Senate, Douglas carried the day for the Kansas-Nebraska bill—and popular sovereignty—with thirty-seven senators in favor and only fourteen opposed; on May 22, 1854, it squeezed through the House of Representatives as well, 113 to 100. President Pierce signed it four days later—the day of a near-total eclipse of the sun.24

But popular sovereignty only cried about “peace”; it did not bring it, either to Kansas or to Stephen A. Douglas. Of the Northern Democrats in the House, over half had voted against Douglas; resolutions attacking the Kansas-Nebraska bill were issued by five Northern state legislatures; and in the fall elections, Democrats who had voted for Kansas-Nebraska fell in heaps, with only seven of the forty-two House Democrats who voted for the bill surviving. When Douglas tried to speak in defense of Kansas-Nebraska on September 1 on his home ground in Chicago, he was hissed, booed, and taunted for two hours until he finally gave up and stamped off the platform. The Illinois elections two months later had an even more dangerous message: in the nine congressional districts, five of the Democrats elected were opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, while the other four (including two Douglas loyalists, Thomas Harris and William Richardson) only narrowly avoided defeat. Douglas-sponsored Democrats clung to only forty-three of the one hundred seats in the state house and senate, and the anti-Douglas majority looked as though they were perfectly capable of taking down another Douglas ally, James Shields, whose U.S. Senate seat was up for reelection by the new legislature when it would meet after the turn of the new year.25

In Kansas, popular sovereignty, instead of bringing peace, brought on a minor civil war. The chant of popular sovereignty as “the true principle” and “the only way to restore peace” was so entrancing that it barely passed notice that the Kansas-Nebraska bill had not specified the point in a territory’s development when the populace would exercise its sovereignty and decide for or against slavery.26 Should the decision be held at the very outset of territorial organization? If so, wouldn’t a negative decision make it impossible for any slave owners to move there, and infuriate Southerners, who would denounce “popular sovereignty” and its champion as frauds? Or should it come at the end of the process, when the territory wrote its proposed state constitution and asked Congress for admission to the Union? If so, and the new constitution banned slavery, were slave owners to be forcibly expelled? And who would police the decision-making process? If enough proslavery settlers—or antislavery settlers—could be rushed into Kansas to create a temporary majority, then that majority might declare that the moment for deciding had arrived and announce the results before the next wagon trains from Missouri or Illinois could create a new majority So began a frantic outfitting of wild-eyed emigrants—New England abolitionists with Bibles, “border ruffians” from Missouri with slaves—to seize control of the territorial process.

Those who, in addition to Bibles or slaves, brought rifles with them to Kansas soon discovered that subtraction by murder was as effective for making majorities as addition by immigration, and so Kansas quickly degenerated into a maelstrom of guerrilla violence, lynch law, and assassination. What popular sovereignty finally produced in Kansas was two hundred murdered settlers, along with two rival territorial legislatures, one proslavery and the other antislavery, each claiming to be the legitimate voice of the people, and two rival state capitals, at Lecompton (for the proslavery legislature) and Topeka (for the antislavery legislature). From them came two rival demands for the authority to apply for statehood and to write a state constitution. At which point, the Kansas imbroglio would be deposited on the doorstep of Congress to settle, and Douglas’s promise that popular sovereignty would clear the slavery problem out of Washington would fall over like a hollow tree in a windstorm.

Assuming that Congress had long since illustrated its incapacity to resolve the slavery question, it would not be long before the other branches of the federal government decided that it was up to them to bring about a final settlement. The first turn was taken by the chief justice of the United States, Roger Brooke Taney, an old-line Jacksonian and onetime slaveholder from Maryland, who imagined that he could defuse the issue by simple judicial fiat. The origins of this fiat stretched back to 1846, when a Missouri-born slave, Dred Scott, sued in the Missouri courts for his freedom on the grounds that his former master, John Emerson, an army surgeon, had taken him on post while Emerson was stationed at Fort Snelling in the Minnesota territory in the 1830s. Since the Minnesota territory was part of the Louisiana Purchase, it had been organized, under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, as a free territory; hence, Scott insisted that his residence there with Emerson made him a free man.27 The case wound its way up through the state and the federal courts, attracting attention and support at every new level, until it was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856. Chief Justice Taney announced the court’s decision on March 6, 1857, and it was bad news for both Dred Scott and Stephen A. Douglas. Scott, simply by virtue of being black and a slave, had no civil standing in a federal court, and therefore Taney wrote in the court’s majority opinion, his appeal was denied; but even if Scott had civil standing, a plea for freedom based on the Missouri Compromise was invalid because Congress had no authority to forbid slave owners, who were citizens entitled to due process, from carrying their slave “property” with them into any of the federal territories. And, Taney added with a twist of the knife, if Congress had no authority to ban slaves from being taken into the territories, neither did the people of the territories, since territorial governments were creations of Congress. So much for popular sovereignty.28

It was bad enough that Taney and Dred Scott made constitutional hash of popular sovereignty. What was worse was the way Douglas’s critics raged that “popular sovereignty” had been a pro-Southern play all along, and that Douglas, eager to curry Southern Democratic favor, had lured Northerners into replacing the Missouri Compromise with “popular sovereignty” so that Taney could slap it down and open the gate to slave expansion. From the perspective of Dred Scott, it was easy to conclude that the Kansas-Nebraska bill was simply the second act of an opera whose first act was the Compromise of 1850 (opening the Mexican Cession to the possibility of slavery by popular sovereignty) and whose third act was Dred Scott (making it impossible to keep slavery out, whether by popular sovereignty or by any other means).

But Douglas was nothing if not resourceful, and in a major speech in the Illinois statehouse on June 12, he insisted that, far from destroying popular sovereignty, the Dred Scott decision had actually left it as the only legal weapon for resisting slavery. It may be true, Douglas conceded, that slave owners’ property rights cannot be extinguished by an act of Congress or a territorial legislature, popular or not. But what is also true is that slavery, in order to function, requires the enactment of a battery of local codes and enforcement statutes. If the people of a territory, exercising their sovereignty, decide not to enact those regulations, they have made slavery just as impossible in that territory as though it had been banned by Congress. The right to slave ownership remains intact, but it “necessarily remains a barren and a worthless right, unless sustained, protected and enforced by appropriate police regulations and local legislation.”29

This formula might have allowed Douglas to dodge Taney’s dagger had it not been for James Buchanan. The veteran Pennsylvania Democrat liked to advertise himself as “a Northern man with Southern principles,” but he might as well have left the Northern part out. Elected president in 1856, after Douglas grudgingly gave up the fight for the nomination, Buchanan chose a cabinet and advisers who were Southerners, and he regarded Dred Scott as the golden key he would use to unlock national peace. Buchanan was also personally suspicious of Stephen Douglas, whom he rightly regarded as his principal rival for party leadership and for “re-election as President,” and he felt no sorrow at seeing Douglas’s pet doctrine of popular sovereignty so severely damaged by Dred Scott. Douglas wrote a friend that he’d quickly found that “at present, I am an outsider. My advice is not coveted nor will my wishes probably be regarded.” Nor was Buchanan any less indulgent when the proslavery Lecompton legislature in Kansas, taking the last step toward admission to the Union as a state, staged a referendum on a proslavery constitution in December 1857, which garnered a suspiciously resounding majority of 6,243 to 569. When the Thirty-fifth Congress opened for business in that same month, Buchanan was ready with a presidential message which recommended the admission of Kansas as a state under the Lecompton constitution. Douglas could either fall in line behind Buchanan and set a match to any hope that Northern Democrats would ever forgive him or go into open rebellion against Buchanan, in which case the president would manipulate every lever of party power and influence to wreck Douglas’s reelection in 1858.30

It took Douglas no long time to make up his mind. He arrived in Washington on December 2 for the opening of Congress and went at once to see Buchanan at the White House. The interview was polite but frosty. “Mr. Douglas, I desire you to remember that no Democrat ever differed from the Administration … without being crushed,” the president warned him. Such, at least had been the fate of earlier Democrats who challenged Andrew Jackson. “Mr. President,” Douglas icily replied, “I wish you to remember that Gen. Jackson is dead, sir.” The day after Buchanan’s message was read to both houses of Congress, Douglas rose to accuse the president of “a fundamental error” in endorsing the Lecompton constitution. “Did we not come before the country and say that we repealed the Missouri restriction for the purpose of substituting and carrying out as a general rule the great principle of self-government, which left the people of each State and each Territory free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way?” Douglas asked with mounting passion. But the Lecompton legislature was a “pretense” of a legislature instead of an expression of popular sovereignty. The referendum behind the Lecompton constitution was “the act and will of a small minority, who have attempted to cheat & defraud the majority by trickery & juggling,” and Buchanan’s attempt to cram Lecompton down congressional throats was an act of blinding executive dictation, which Douglas intended to dispute to the last yard.

It was not slavery or an anxiety to shore up his standing with Northern voters, Douglas insisted, which drove him to this conclusion. “If Kansas wants a slave-State constitution she has a right to it…. I do not care whether it is voted down or voted up.” It was the principle of the people’s right to self-government which made his heart beat, and which now drove him into opposition to the president and his own party, and he played upon his own impending political martyrdom as the reward political virtue must expect from political vice. “I should regret any social or political estrangement, even temporarily, but if it must be, if I cannot act with you and preserve my faith and honor, I will stand on the great principle of popular sovereignty.”31

On February 4, 1858, Douglas broke openly with the administration and called for the Senate to reject the Lecompton constitution, and in March, as the constitution finally came to a vote, Douglas rose to address a Senate chamber so packed with spectators that even the corridors outside were jammed. “Is there a man within the hearing of my voice who believes that the Lecompton Constitution does embody the will of a majority of the bona fides inhabitants of Kansas?” he asked angrily, and over the course of three hours, he attacked the legitimacy of the Lecompton constitution and rebuked James Buchanan for trying to “prescribe” artificial “tests” for party loyalty.32

The problem, as Douglas knew all too well, was that, because he was head of the Democratic party, prescribing “tests” was exactly what Buchanan could do very effectively In the political era of the 1850s, before civil service reform professionalized the federal bureaucracy, every federal office was an executive appointment. And patronage appointments, from the cabinet down to the smallest post office, were the lifeblood of national politics. They were the principal means of rewarding the party faithful; they were the practical device that ensured a lucrative salary and modest responsibilities to a party’s newspaper editors; and at election time, patronage appointees turned into the party’s foot soldiers and contributed to the party’s coffers from their salaries. Buchanan, who had spent a lifetime within the federal patronage system, was not shy about using it to “prescribe tests,” and he cheerfully did so now. Only two Democratic senators joined Douglas in voting against Lecompton.33

In the House, Buchanan’s floor managers were distracted by insults and fistfights between members, and by the substitution of an amendment from Indiana congressman William English, which required the Lecompton constitution to be resubmitted to Kansas voters in a second—and this time federally supervised—referendum. Otherwise, Kansas would have to agree to make no new application for statehood. After hesitating because of the referendum provision, Douglas finally came out in opposition to both Lecompton and the English amendment. The House then voted to endorse Lecompton, but only with English’s amendment and only by a margin of 112 to 103. The Senate backed the House version, with Douglas and his two last allies, David Broderick of California and Charles Stuart of Michigan, standing out to the end. When the Senate closed its session on June 14, Douglas seemed to have lost the fight over Lecompton and now had to look ahead to Illinois, to a campaign for reelection, and to the possibility that a triumphant James Buchanan would move heaven and earth—and every patronage appointment in them—to see him defeated.34

Abraham Lincoln first encountered Stephen A. Douglas in the winter of 1834, when the tall, stilt-legged store clerk turned surveyor, with “his gaunt but intellectual face” and “negligent dress,” arrived by stagecoach in the Illinois capital of Vandalia to sit for the first time as a state legislator.35 Both men were immigrants to Illinois (Lincoln was born in Kentucky in 1809, moved with his parents to Indiana in 1816, and thence to Illinois in 1830), both of them had lost a parent early in life (in Lincoln’s case, his mother, in 1818), both turned to law as a profession but to politics as a vocation. Thereafter, all similarities ended, for Lincoln’s model statesman was not Andrew Jackson but the man who emerged as Jackson’s great political nemesis in the 1830s, the great compromise builder, Henry Clay.

In earlier days, Clay had been a devoted Democrat in Congress, despising banks and lauding the virtues of the agrarian life. But the near catastrophe of the War of 1812, in which a virtuous agricultural republic ruled by Democratic agrarians was nearly snuffed out because it could not raise the cash to pay its soldiers or rely on a vast base of manufacturing to arm them, taught Clay how unlikely it was for virtue to triumph unless virtue was self-sufficient. For the next twenty years, he tirelessly promoted an “American System” of domestic manufacturing, a system protected by high tariffs against foreign manufacturers, supported by the government-sponsored “internal improvements” the Jacksonians despised, and undergirded by a national bank that used the proceeds from the tariffs and the sale of federal land in the West to provide the start-up funding for ambitious new corporations. What looked to Andrew Jackson like pandering to the “moneyed interests”—or worse, a plot to enmesh the American farmer in the tentacles of consumerism, debt, and British-style industrial capitalism—looked to Clay like an investment in a robust economy, the first line of resistance to hostile monarchies. Anyone who could not endorse that “must be for reducing us either to a dependence on … foreign nations, or to be clothed in skins.”36 Certainly, the leadership of the Democracy had no business complaining about “moneyed interests” when so many of them, beginning with Jackson himself, owned vast plantations, worked by battalions of black slaves. If anything, a thriving and diverse manufacturing economy offered to the poor and middling sorts an openness to talent, ingenuity, and self-transformation which made the agrarian Eden of the Jacksonians smell stale and pigeonholed.

Unlike Douglas, Lincoln had experienced firsthand all he cared to experience of the pleasures of the agrarian life growing up in Indiana. “I was raised to farm work,” he recalled in 1859; he had “an axe put into his hands” almost as early as he could walk “and from that till within his twentythird year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument.” His father, Thomas, was a textbook illustration of the independent farmer who subsisted cheerfully on what he could grow or make from his own land, without the need for banks or for the baubles of the marketplace, and without the slightest prickling of ambition for anything better. Thomas Lincoln “was satisfied to live in the good old fashioned way” raising just “a Nuf for his own use” and with no interest in marketing “any produce to any other place Mor than Bought his Shugar and Coffee and Such Like.” He was also a test case for the dark side of agrarianism—brutal, abusive, ignorant, semiliterate, and suspicious of the “uncommon natural talents” his son was already displaying at an early age. The boy “was a constant and … Stubborn reader,” but the only appreciation Thomas Lincoln showed was “to slash him for neglecting his work by reading.” Years later, Abraham Lincoln would retaliate by remembering his father as a man who “never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly sign his own name.”37

By the 1830s, neither Abraham Lincoln nor Henry Clay could live under such roofs any longer. Clay organized an anti-Jacksonian “National Republican” faction within the Democratic party, and when that failed to halt Jackson’s relentless drive to the presidency, he bolted from the Democratic ranks entirely and raised the banner of what he christened the Whig party—Whig after the venerable old name applied in England to the party of resistance to royal despotism and military power. “A Whig,” insisted one of Clay’s Virginia admirers, “means one who prefers liberty to tyranny—who supports … the rights and immunities of the people … against the predominance of the Crown, or executive power”—meaning, especially, Andrew Jackson. But Clay’s Whigs evolved quickly from a hate-Jackson movement into an entire political culture of their own, built around the upwardly mobile aspirations of the American middle class. They were predominantly urban rather than agrarian, wedded to commerce and industry rather than agriculture, and they took the whole nation—not just their local parts of the Union—as the basis of their political identity, as befitted a party determined to link the various states and regions of the Union into a single, efficient national market. “The Whig party is a National party … and not to be disturbed by all the local questions of policy that may arise.”38

Whigs worshiped at the shrine of social mobility and self-improvement, something which laid the basis for the Whigs’ alliance with the multitude of evangelical Protestant churches in America. This alliance did not require Whigs to become converts. Abraham Lincoln, who drank in the religious skepticism of Tom Paine and Robert Burns with his earliest reading, never joined a church. But he also insisted that he could not “be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.” Transforming the self was as much a goal of the Whigs as it was of the evangelical revivalists, and their shared confidence in the possibilities of personal transformation marked the merchants and the preachers as men of seriousness and dividends, and set them off decisively from the obsession with class and racial stability and the violent defense of personal honor that characterized the Jacksonians, and Andrew Jackson himself. “Every manufactory known to me, is in the hands of enterprising and self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor,” wrote Clay “Is there more tendency to aristocracy in manufactory, supporting hundreds of freemen, or in a cotton plantation, with its not less than numerous slaves?”39

Just as Clay left the Jacksonians, so did Lincoln leave his father’s farm for the upward-looking possibilities of wage-labor and commerce. Once the Lincolns moved to Illinois, in 1830, and Lincoln turned twenty-one, he left his father’s two-room cabin and never looked back. “His father taught him to work” on the farm, Lincoln wisecracked, “but never learned him to love it,” and in years to come, Lincoln would equate the way his father hired him out as a farm laborer with slavery. Unlike Douglas, “he said he had no capacity whatever for speculation” in land “and never attempted it.” Instead, he plunged into the market economy as a store owner and then finally, in 1837, as a member of the first rank of capitalism’s enforcers, a lawyer. And when he arrived in Vandalia as a freshman state legislator, he was already armed as a Whig, ready to battle for state-funded “internal improvements,” turnpikes and canals, and a state bank. “He was as stiff as a man could be in his Whig doctrines,” remarked Stephen A. Logan, who took Lincoln into law partnership in the early 1840s. “In this he made no concession of principle whatsoever.” Henry Clay was Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman,” and he was so “deeply imbued with the Principles of Henry Clay” that decades later he would still describe himself as “always … an old-line Henry Clay Whig.” And as a Whig, he voted at the end of the legislative session in February 1835 against the Democratic candidate for state’s attorney for the First District, Stephen A. Douglas.40

Lincoln had not liked Douglas then—he referred to the five-foot-four-inch Douglas as “the least man I ever saw”—and the impression did not improve with time. The two had publicly crossed political swords as early as 1838, when Lincoln took the stump on behalf of his law partner, John Todd Stuart, in Stuart’s race against Douglas for a seat in Congress. They shared an election platform again during the 1840 presidential race, when Lincoln became a “travelling missionary” across Illinois for the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison. Despite Lincoln’s sharp suggestion that it would be better “never to speak of Douglas at all” (since that was “the best mode of treating so small a matter”), both men went “all around the Circuit … & spoke.” (In 1858, Lincoln would remark at the Tazewell county courthouse that “he had often met with Douglas upon the very steps upon which he was speaking, before as now to oppose his political doctrines.”) A partisan himself, Lincoln had a partisan’s contempt for an opposing partisan. That distaste was not softened by the tattletales who smirked that Douglas had been Lincoln’s chief rival for the hand of Mary Todd, whom Lincoln married in 1842. Douglas was exactly the risk taker Lincoln was not, a man who “will tell a lie to ten thousand people one day, even though he knows he may have to deny it to five thousand the next.” “Of all men he has ever seen,” Lincoln bitterly remarked, Douglas “has the most audacity in maintaining an untenable position.”41

But by that audacity, Douglas had “bamboozled thousands into believing him,” and the result was that Douglas had scampered to the top of the ladder of American politics while Lincoln had languished in honest obscurity, with only his personal integrity to console him. “Douglas had got to be a great man, & [be] strode the earth,” Lincoln complained sarcastically in 1852. “Time was when I was in his way some; but he has outgrown me & [be] strides the world; & such small men as I am, can hardly be considered worthy of his notice; & I may have to dodge and get between his legs.” In Lincoln’s eyes, Douglas was the Democratic golden boy who had everything in politics handed to him effortlessly, while Lincoln was left to struggle and lose, unappreciated and unsupported. “Twenty-two years ago Judge Douglas and I first became acquainted,” Lincoln wrote in 1856. “With me, the race of ambition has been a failure—a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success. His name fills the nation; and is not unknown, even, in foreign lands.” Lincoln was not normally one to hold grudges. But Douglas was an exception. “He was intensely jealous of him,” remembered Ward Hill Lamon, one of Lincoln’s favorites. He “longed to pull him down, or outstrip him in the race for popular favor, which they united in considering ‘the chief end of man.’”42

In the shadow of his self-pity, Lincoln forgot that, once elected to the Illinois legislature, he, too, had moved quickly to the forefront of the Whig caucus and successfully pushed to adoption bills for massive “internal improvements” projects across Illinois, and a state bank to fund them. He forgot also that he was the principal force behind moving the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield, where he practiced law with Stuart and Logan, two highly placed Whigs; that he had boosted himself into the top layer of Springfield’s Whig ascendancy by marrying Mary Todd; that he had converted the visibility he earned in the legislature and the courts into election to Congress in 1846; and that, by the 1850s, he had established his own law firm with a very handsome income from civil litigation in the Illinois appeals courts and state supreme court. “At that time,” recalled Shelby Cullom over fifty years later, “Abraham Lincoln and Stephen T. Logan and Stuart and [Ninian] Edwards [Lincoln’s brother-in-law] were the four ablest lawyers in the capital city.”43

The problem was that these successes were not the successes he craved. Lincoln was a man of “great ambition” who as “early as 1830 began to dream of a destiny,” But by 1850 few of his accomplishments looked much like a “destiny.” Springfield and its surrounding counties in central Illinois formed a comfortable belt of Whig loyalty which ran horizontally across the state, but it was easily dwarfed by Democratic majorities everywhere else in the state, which kept the state legislature, the governor’s mansion, and all the Illinois congressional districts (except Lincoln’s own Seventh) locked in Democratic hands. Behind his back, friends whispered that his marriage “was a policy Match all around,” and his third law partner, William Henry Herndon, went so far as to describe the Lincoln home as an “ice cave” that offered Lincoln nothing but “domestic hell.” Above all, Lincoln’s term in Congress was marked by a bid to earn standing for himself as a Whig by criticizing the war with Mexico, a gesture which turned out to be a colossal political blunder. Only two weeks into his first congressional session, Lincoln rose to attack President James Knox Polk through a series of eight questions, demanding to know whether Polk had deliberately provoked a clash with Mexico by ordering American troops into a disputed boundary zone where they were ambushed by the Mexican army. Lincoln wanted to know “whether the spot on which the blood of our citizens was shed” was really American soil—as though nice points in international law meant anything now that a full-blown war was in progress. This hectoring drew guffaws and denunciations from Democrats in Congress and only embarrassed Illinois Whigs, who had no desire to look like they were giving aid and comfort to the Mexicans.44

Lincoln worked hard to elect a Whig president, Zachary Taylor, in 1848, but unlike Douglas’s, his hopes for a reward in the form of some high-profile federal office were dashed when all the Taylor administration offered him was the governorship of the Oregon Territory Lincoln buried his disappointments behind a wall “of quite infinite silences … thoroughly and deeply secretive, uncommunicative, and close-minded as to his plans, wishes, hopes and fears.” And once his solitary term in Congress was over, Lincoln came back to Springfield, “despaired of ever rising again in the political world,” and turned his formidable powers of concentration on the practice of law. “We, the old whigs, have been entirely beaten out,” he groaned, and by 1854, “his profession had almost superseded all thought of politics in his mind.”45

And then came the Kansas-Nebraska bill.

Abraham Lincoln always spoke of himself as being “naturally” opposed to slavery, as though it was an instinct rather than a conclusion. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” he wrote. “I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Although he was born in Kentucky, where slavery was legal, “and brought up among people who were in favor of slavery” in Indiana, Lincoln “never wavered in his abhorrence of it.” Slavery always reminded him of the grinding labor of his youth, with his father pocketing the money the young Lincoln had earned. “I always thought that the man who made the corn should eat the corn,” Lincoln remarked. Not only eat it but profit from it. What made the American democracy “the wonder and admiration of the whole world” was its sheer, unhindered openness to self-improvement, that “there is not permanent class of hired laborers amongst us” and “that every man can make himself.” Even the promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence was not so much about political rights as it was about economic opportunity. “Advancement—improvement in condition—is the order of things in a society of equals,” Lincoln explained. What most galled him about slavery was that it sealed the slave for life. “African Slavery,” he declared, is “a war upon the rights of all working people” because the slave is born “doomed, damned, and forgotten, to everlasting bondage.” The path to despotism began with tolerating the existence of a “permanent class of hired laborers,” then moved to excusing permanence for the sake of master class’s comfort and stability; and when that point is reached, can anyone be “quite certain that the tyrant demon will not turn upon him too?”46

That did not mean, however, that Lincoln was an abolitionist on the order of William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass. On the long spectrum of opinions that constituted opposition to slavery, abolition was only the most radical, because it stood for an immediate end to slavery, without gradual timetables or financial compensation to slave owners. Abolition was a radicalism fueled by a heady blend of Romantic ethics and renegade evangelicalism, which explains why it was so uncompromising and so passionate in its demands, since in the calculations of Romantic fervor, half measures are generally worse than none. But Lincoln was neither a Romantic nor an evangelical. His guiding star was reason, “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” rather than the “fury” of the moralists. When the abolitionists insisted that they must “do their duty and leave the consequences to God,” that struck Lincoln as little better than “an excuse for taking a course that they were not able to maintain by a fair and full argument.” Reason told him that this world was “a world of compensations” rather than absolutes, where prudence and caution were the best cures for evil, and that the best solution to evils like slavery was to allow reason to be “moulded into general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.”47

As clear as it was in Lincoln’s mind that the Founders would never have talked about equality if they had not seen slavery as a “great and crying injustice,” it was equally clear that the Founders tolerated slavery’s existence in the new Republic because that was the only way they could get the Southern states to ratify the Constitution. The states, in the judgment of good Whigs, “came into the Union in good faith, and with a full and perfect understanding, that the powers of the Union should not extend to the compulsory reform of their domestic institutions.” But it was only a temporary toleration. Once cemented together in a national Union, Americans would start from a new baseline of equality, which would permit no new growth of slavery and would encourage slavery in the old states to die out on its own. “No man has the right to keep his fellow man in bondage, be he black or white,” Lincoln assured the Hungarian exile Julian Kune, “and the time will come, and must come, when there will not be a single slave within the borders of this country.” But so long as the Constitution spread that temporary sanction over slavery, “it is our duty to wait.”48

Kansas-Nebraska, however, was not what Lincoln thought he was waiting for. “The repeal of the Missouri compromise aroused him as he had never been before,” Lincoln wrote years later; it “took us by surprise—astounded us,” and “raised such an excitement … throughout the country as never before was heard of in this Union.” Kansas-Nebraska was not “a law” but an act of “violence from the beginning,” first crammed down the throat of Congress and now clamped like a vise on Kansas. Popular sovereignty was not a mechanism for promoting peaceful democratic choice in the territories; it was a political sham, devised as a clever strategy of “the slaveholding power” for tearing down the antislavery barrier erected by earlier generations to the vast stretches of the West. No one, Lincoln explained, better “appreciated … the sacred right of self-government, rightly understood … than himself.” And if popular sovereignty meant only that “individuals held the right to regulate their own family affairs; communities might arrange their own internal matter to suit themselves; States might make their own statutes, subject only to the Constitution of the United States;—no one disagreed with this doctrine.” But if popular sovereignty meant the freedom of one man to plunge another into the “moral, social and political evil of slavery,” then they were talking no longer about popular sovereignty in the territories but about popular tyranny. “Any man who has the sense to be the controller of his own property, has too much sense to misunderstand the outrageous character of this whole Nebraska business.”49

And not only the territories. If there was no legitimacy to banning slavery in the territories, then, by the same logic, there should be no legitimacy to opposing slavery at all. On those terms, slavery was not an evil to be eclipsed but merely another economic arrangement to be processed under the equal—and indifferent—protection of the laws. To see no difference “between freedom and slavery—that both are equal with us—that we yield our territories as readily to one as to the other” was “practically legislating for slavery recognizing it, endorsing it, propagating it, extending it.” What argument, then, could possibly be offered to sustain the bans on slavery in the free states? “This thing is spreading like wild fire over the Country,” Lincoln warned Joseph Gillespie, his old Whig political ally. “In a few years we will be ready to accept the institution in Illinois and the whole country will adopt it.” And standing behind it, fully expecting to reap the highest reward for his service, stood Stephen A. Douglas—“Our Senator.” And so, even though “we were thunderstruck and stunned … we rose each fighting, grasping whatever he could first reach” to strike a blow at Kansas-Nebraska—and Douglas.50

Lincoln could not, in 1854, directly challenge Douglas at the polls, since Douglas’s seat as Illinois’s senior senator would not come up for reelection until 1858. But he could certainly begin undermining Douglas in Douglas’s own Illinois heartland, and to that end, Lincoln threw himself into the fall state legislative campaigns in order to promote the election of Whig candidates. They, in turn, would be casting votes, come the new year, for the junior senator’s seat, which was held at that moment by one of Douglas’s lieutenants, James Shields. (Lincoln had no personal love for Shields, either, having once nearly fought a duel with him over a series of insulting newspaper articles Lincoln ghostwrote).51

So when Douglas returned to Illinois in September to campaign “with a furor” on Shields’s behalf, Lincoln began showing up at Douglas’s rallies and following up Douglas’s speeches in defense of Kansas-Nebraska and popular sovereignty with sharply tuned rebuttals “until he run him into his hole or made him holler.” Between September and November, Lincoln averaged one major campaign speech a week, hanging on Douglas’s coattails and, on October 4 in Springfield, speaking so soon after Douglas that the event almost looked like a debate. Over and over again, Lincoln drilled home his questions: What was popular sovereignty? It was a “lullaby” which put to sleep the original love of liberty inherited from “our revolutionary fathers.” What was slavery? It was a “total violation” of the real doctrine of self-government, that “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that man’s consent,” and “a gross outrage on the law of nature.” What was the solution? “The Missouri Compromise ought to be restored” and slavery put back behind the barriers within which it must eventually die. These speeches, remembered one veteran Whig, were “the occasion of his becoming a great antislavery leader,” and he “rallied the Whig Party of Central Illinois almost to a man against [the] Nebraska Bill.”52

However, Lincoln understood that he would accomplish little simply by rallying Illinois Whigs. The Whigs were themselves bitterly divided over Kansas-Nebraska, both in Illinois and across the country, since large numbers of Whigs who distrusted Kansas-Nebraska were even more distrustful of the abolitionists and anti-Nebraska Democrats who were opposing Douglas. Lincoln tried to cajole them in Illinois by asking whether they would “allow me as an old whig to tell them good-humoredly that I think this is very silly? Stand with anybody that stands RIGHT.” And that fall, in Michigan and Wisconsin, a new “fusion” party of anti-Nebraska Democrats and antislavery Whigs took the name Republican, swept all its nominees to victory in Michigan, and left only one Democratic congressman standing in Wisconsin. In Ohio, anti-Nebraska Democrats and old Whigs joined hands under the banner of the “People’s Ticket” and swamped regular Democrats in all but nine counties. And in Illinois, the Democratic leadership in Chicago—Norman Buel Judd, John Wentworth, and Burton C. Cook—together with the downstaters John M. Palmer and Lyman Trumbull, deserted Douglas to run as anti-Nebraska Democrats for the state legislature. “Douglas can no more control Illinois than a Hottentot Chief can,” crowed Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon.53

The success of the anti-Douglas candidates led Lincoln to begin toying with a more ambitious goal than simply denying the junior Senate seat to James Shields. “It may come round that a whig may, by possibility, be elected to the U.S. Senate,” he wrote frankly to a newly elected member of the Illinois House, “and I want the chance of being the man.” Although in normal times a Whig was no more likely to be elected to the Senate by the legislature’s Democratic majorities than an abolitionist, these were not normal times, and anti-Nebraska Democrats were certainly not going to reelect a Douglas puppet. And if a Whig could promote himself as more anti-Nebraska than Whig, he might just win by default. “I would rather have a full term in the Senate” than any other office, Lincoln explained, because it was “a place in which I would feel more consciously able to discharge the duties required and where there was more chance to make reputation and less danger of losing it”—not to mention the satisfaction of finally pulling even with Stephen A. Douglas. “I have really got it into my head to try to be United States Senator,” Lincoln wrote to Joseph Gillespie on December 1, and as he tallied the numbers, he counted twenty-eight Whigs and fourteen anti-Nebraska Democrats in the state House, and fourteen more in the state Senate. Fifty-six, which should be more than enough to elect him to the Senate.54

What he did not expect was that, much as he might want to “fuse” with the anti-Douglas Democrats, they might decline to “fuse” with him. By the middle of December, Lincoln was already worried that “there must be something wrong about U.S. Senator, at Chicago,” since he could tease no commitments from Judd, Cook, or Wentworth. And when the legislature met, in the wake of a blinding snowstorm, to cast ballots for senator, Lincoln received only forty-five votes—minus the Chicago delegation and six short of a majority—while Shields still had forty-one and a downstate anti-Nebraska Democrat, Lyman Trumbull, had five. It was apparent that Stephen A. Douglas had not been idle, either. Douglas hoped that Shields would be reelected by “acclamation” and “in that event let every paper in the State put Shields name at the head of its columns for Senator.” (Anything, including a deadlock, “would be better than the election of Lincoln,” Douglas added.) But Shields only continued to lose ground, and on orders from Douglas’s ally Thomas L. Harris, the Douglasites substituted the popular former governor Joel Matteson as the Democratic nominee. Matteson had taken no public stand on Kansas-Nebraska and even tried “to privately impress them with the belief that he was as good Anti-Nebraska as any one else.” As relieved Democrats began swinging to Matteson, Lincoln decided that it would be far better to elect Trumbull, even at his own expense, than a man whose leading-strings would be in Douglas’s hands. “I could not … let the whole political result go to ruin, on a point merely personal to myself,” he wrote, no matter how “ambitious” he was. So Lincoln “urged his friends to vote for Trumbull,” and on the tenth ballot Trumbull was elected. (It is an indication of how embarrassing this loss really was for Douglas that Douglas tried—and failed—to have Trumbull’s admission to the Senate blocked on a technicality.)55

The biggest loser, however, was neither Lincoln nor Douglas but the Whig party. Fusion had scored some impressive successes in the western states, but it had failed to generate much energy in the East, and it had signally failed to elect Lincoln in Illinois. Fusion also had no long-term future. Whig loyalists might temporarily bury a few hatchets in order to defeat Douglas, but that did nothing for the Whigs in the long run, and it even implied that the Whig party had become so feeble that it no longer had any hope of electing candidates purely on its own strength. “The Whig party is dead,” complained a longtime Whig lawyer, Usher F Linder, “and I am left a widower.” Some turned to the American party (or “Know-Nothings”), a rapidly emerging party organized around hostility to immigration. Others turned to the Republicans, and in northern Illinois, Republican and “Peoples” conventions assembled at Rockford, Aurora, and Bloomington to adopt openly abolitionist platforms. Lincoln might have joined them at that moment—he declared himself ready to “fuse with anyone who would unite with him to oppose the slave power”—but he was as yet still enough of a Whig, and still too uncertain that affiliation with the “abolitionist” Republicans would advance him anywhere. Still, the days of Whig loyalty were numbered, as in fact were the days of Democratic loyalty in Illinois. Soon enough, the major anti-Nebraska Democrats—Trumbull, Cook, Judd, Wentworth—all broke their ties to the Democratic party and joined the Republicans.56

And in the spring of 1856, as the shrinking circle of the Whig party nominated Millard Fillmore for president and sagged toward an alliance with the Know-Nothings, Lincoln made his move, too. In February, he accepted an invitation from key Republican leaders in Illinois to a state organizing meeting in Decatur, where they “concluded by toasting Mr. Abram Lincoln as the warm and consistent friend of Illinois, and our next candidate for the U.S. Senate.” He agreed to address the Republican state convention in Bloomington in May and brought down the house with what John M. Palmer thought was “the greatest speech of his life.” It now remained only for Lincoln to grasp the opportunity to confront Douglas—and the “slaveholding power”—directly, when the senior Illinois seat came vacant in 1858.57

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at
Gettysburg College, where he also directs the Civil War Era Studies Program and
The Gettysburg Semester. He is the author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer
(1999) and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of
Slavery in America
(2004), both of which won the Lincoln Prize. He has
written essays and reviews for The Washington Post, The Wall Street
, Time, the Journal of American History, and many other

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 13, 2009)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743273213

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