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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 480

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This is the grave of Stephen A. Douglas.

Born in 1813 in Brandon, Vermont, Douglass (the name originally had an extra “s” at the end) was the son of a physician. But his father died when he was a baby and his mother moved in with another family member. Douglas was trained as a carpenter but wasn’t really very good at it so he went to school in New York and became involved in politics at a young age. He was a huge supporter of Andrew Jackson and would remain so throughout his life. He showed a great deal of promise and had patrons. But New York had instituted actual standards to become a lawyer–a new thing for the nation. It required at least seven years of formal education in a “classical” manner. Douglas didn’t have that. So he moved west, where there were no standards. He ended up in Illinois after brief periods in Ohio, Missouri, and Kentucky.

Douglas quickly established himself as a leading lawyer in the young state and as a leading Democrat. He became of the leaders of the “Whole Hog” faction who were the strongest supporters of Jackson’s policies, whatever they may be. He found law boring compared to politics and made that his new vocation. He was a big player in delivering Illinois to Martin Van Buren in 1836 and won election to the State House of Representatives that same year. Van Buren, always knowledgeable about patronage, named Douglas the registrar of the Springfield Land Office as well, which gave him no few additional connections he could use in the future. He lost a very close race for Congress in 1838, but helped keep Illinois in the Van Buren column in 1840. He was then named Illinois’ Secretary of State in 1841. He was only in that position very briefly because he was promoted to the state Supreme Court and then he left that to go to Congress in 1843.

When James Polk won election to the presidency in 1844, the new president recognized a critical leader in Congress when he saw one. Douglas was a huge supporter of Polk’s expansionist policies, including annexing Texas and stealing half of Mexico to expand slavery. After the Mexican War began, Douglas wanted to volunteer for the military, but Polk convinced him not to, saying he would be far more valuable to the administration in Washington. Indeed he would be. Douglas was still in his early 30s, but he soon became the most important Democrat in the nation and one who also had unlimited ambition. He was one of only four northern Democrats to vote against the Wilmot Proviso, the northern Democratic measure to ban slavery in territories acquired from Mexico and a significant moment in the end of the Second Party System. Douglas, who both loved slavery and wanted to be president, realized that for him at least, it was smart politics that was consistent with his beliefs to vote with the slave power.

In fact, Douglas soon became a slave owner, even though he was a representative from Illinois. He had married a wealthy North Carolina woman in 1847 In 1848, her father died and dad left the newlyweds a plantation in Mississippi with 100 slaves. Now, Douglas certainly had no problem with this, but he also didn’t want it to hurt his political career. After all, he couldn’t be too craven in support of slavery and win in the North. So he removed himself from the management of the plantation and hired someone to do it for him. I believe he owned slaves until the day he died, even though he visited the plantation infrequently.

1847 wasn’t just the year Douglas got married. He also got elected to the Senate. When the Mexican War ended, a furious North did not want the South to get its spoils and change the national balance between slave and free states. Henry Clay, aging but still active, issued his proposals that led to the Compromise of 1850–California coming in as a free state, Utah and New Mexico getting to choose their status whenever the U.S. could figure out what to do with places dominated by Mormons and Mexicans, the banning of the slave trade in Washington, D.C., Texas getting its debts paid off in exchange for giving up on its ridiculous territorial claims that extended all the way to modern Wyoming, and the odious Fugitive Slave Act. Douglas took the lead in getting this through the Senate. This allowed him to wrap himself in Clay’s cloak as his political heir.

Now the most important person in the Senate, Douglas capitalized. He was a major backer of business expansionism, especially railroads, and used his power to help build them. He was pretty interested in being president in 1852, but was so young. When a deadlocked convention picked the doughface Franklin Pierce, Douglas worked for him and did much to get him elected. But Douglas was then outraged when he was shut out of the patronage in favor of other leading Democrats Jefferson Davis and James Buchanan. He took a back stage role for awhile, a period which included the death of a daughter and him simply bailing on the Senate for a five-month European trip. But when Pierce pushed forward with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Douglas stepped back on the big stage to push this law through. Kansas-Nebraska flushed the Missouri Compromise down the toilet and ensured that violent battles over the future of slavery in the territories would result. But Douglas came up with the idea of “popular sovereignty” to gain political capital over an awful bill. By saying that individual white male citizens should decide these questions instead of Big Government in Washington, he played to his Jacksonian roots.

Seeing himself as the next Clay, who had recently died, Douglas was pretty shocked that he faced so much backlash for Kansas-Nebraska Act, which very much did not subside once Kansas turned into a bloodbath. Douglas instead doubled down, supporting the pro-slavery settlers in Kansas and claiming it was the legitimate government of the territory, even though a sizable majority of the people actually wanting to live there did not want slaves. The Illinois legislature responded by kicking out Douglas’ ally James Shields and sending the anti-slavery Democrat Lyman Trumbull to Washington instead. Perhaps Douglas would be the next casualty?

Despite being frustrated by James Buchanan’s promotion to the presidency (Douglas was once again shut out of the patronage), he was nothing if not a good Democrat biding his time. But what did being a good Democrat mean in 1857? There was increasingly no room for a Clay-like compromise figure, no matter how much he actually had pro-slavery forces at heart. That year, Kansas slave forces issued the Lecompton Constitution. This was a shot right at the heart of popular sovereignty, a pro-slavery constitution to bring Kansas into the nation without a vote. Douglas had no choice but to oppose it; certainly he wasn’t going to die on the sword to save Buchanan. Congress actually passed the thing and Buchanan signed it but it still eventually had to go to Kansas voters, who rejected it in 1858 after a new legislature was elected.

Then, in 1858, Abraham Lincoln decided to take on Douglas for the Senate. Given that this was something chosen by the state legislature, the chances of Republicans winning and being able to elect Lincoln was small. But the Lincoln-Douglas Debates would go down in history as perhaps the most important series of public talks ever. Douglas was always consistent in his politics–he wanted to empower white men to do whatever they chose to do, especially if that included slavery. He never hid that principle, even if he also never hid that black people were an irrelevancy in any political consideration. He was awful, but consistent, for whatever that’s worth. Meanwhile, Douglas was also right that Lincoln absolutely changed his tone significantly between the debates close to the Wisconsin border and those close to the Kentucky border. But while the debates did little to hurt Douglas’ reputation, they immensely helped Lincoln’s at lay the groundwork for the 1860 presidential election. Douglas was reelected after Democrats won 54 of the 100 votes in the state Senate and was returned to Washington.

If conditions in 1860 were as in 1856, Douglas would have been the nomination without much opposition. It was certainly his turn. But by 1860, southern extremists were demanding far more than 1856. The failure of Lecompton to turn Kansas into a slave state infuriated them and Douglas was now a sellout for prioritizing popular sovereignty over serving the slave masters. The South walked out of the convention when it became clear that Douglas would win. They would have their own party and talk secession if Lincoln won, which is of course what happened. Douglas only won Missouri and 3 of New Jersey’s 7 electoral votes in the face of a north disgusted by the South. The hatred of Douglas from Buchanan’s people helped split the party, he had trouble raising money, and the campaign was a total failure.

When the South committed treason in defense of slavery, Douglas was notably not supportive. A Democrat he was to the end, but he was strongly anti-secession. He supported the Crittenden Compromise, which was basically a deal where the North wold give the South everything it wanted so that it wouldn’t secede right now, but of course could at any time. Lincoln rejected it entirely. Douglas had a reasonably good personal relationship with Lincoln. They had known each other long before 1858 of course. It’s possible he would have been an important ally of the president in the Democratic Party. At least as the war began to get underway, he was pretty supportive. But then he also dropped dead in June 1861 after contracting typhoid fever. Despite his already very long career, he was only 48 years old.

Stephen Douglas is buried at Stephen Douglas Monument Park, Chicago, Illinois.

At this point in the series, I’ve visited a lot of the big leaders of 19th century politics, especially those in the North. So it’s kind of fun to move into more of the secondary figures. Thus, if you would like this series to visit the graves of other presidential losers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John C. Frémont, who lost to Buchanan in 1856, is in Sparkill, New York and Winfield Scott, who lost to Pierce in 1852, is at West Point. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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