The Magazine

Douglas of the West

He was not called ‘the Little Giant’ for nothing.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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His contemporaries called him “the Little Giant.” They recognized that although Stephen A. Douglas was physically a pipsqueak—standing only 5-foot-4, small even for his generation—he loomed over American political life through his intensity, intelligence, and energy. Unfortunately for his historical reputation, he clashed with another Illinois man—a tall, homely, and ungainly fellow named Abraham Lincoln, who well over a century ago was transmogrified into a secular god, beloved by conservatives and liberals alike.

Stephen A. Douglas

If Douglas is known at all today, it is almost entirely in Lincoln’s reflected glory. Douglas was the Democrat who debated the Republican Lincoln in 1858, winning reelection to the Senate, in part, by crudely playing the race card, accusing Lincoln of favoring social equality for blacks, and their intermarriage with whites—charges Lincoln fiercely denied, not without displaying his own racism. Douglas is also remembered as the presidential nominee of a bitterly divided Democratic party who lost to Lincoln in 1860.

Largely forgotten, though, are elements of his character that speak well of Douglas: his stunning rise from a paltry youth; his guts in defying the weak and corrupt administration of President James Buchanan; his determination to keep the country from being torn in two; his staunch patriotism. This insightful new study explores these elements, and more.

Using unpublished and recently discovered letters, Martin Quitt, professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, offers a glimpse into Douglas’s troubled youth and unpleasant family life in rural Vermont. His 31-year-old father died when Douglas was two months old, and for the rest of his life, he maintained a certain reserve, if not coldness, toward his mother. He left school at 15 to try to make a go of it as an apprentice furniture maker, failing because of his weakness and puny build. He then set out for the West, where he very nearly died from a protracted illness, tended to by a landlady without help from his family. He seemed to reveal some of his bitterness later in life, when he accepted an honorary doctorate from Middlebury and declared: “My friends, Vermont is the most glorious spot on the face of the globe for a man to be born in, provided he emigrates when he is very young.”

In Illinois, Douglas found the land of his dreams—the place where he could pass the bar exam with a minimum of fuss and enter a political career without waiting in line. At 21, he was appointed state’s attorney of Morgan County. In quick succession, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, appointed registrar of the Springfield Land Office, made Illinois secretary of state, and, at 27, named associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. One year later, he won a seat in Congress. Four years after that, he was elected to the United States Senate.

This meteoric rise, in striking contrast to Lincoln’s tortuous, crablike journey to political power, reflected Douglas’s remarkable ability to connect with people. Considerably more buoyant than Lincoln, he seemed the living embodiment of the high-energy, youthful, can-do spirit of what was then known as the Northwest. A contemporary observed that one of the diminutive politician’s odd techniques of winning over voters (all male in those days) was to “sit on their laps, and clap them on their backs,” exuding a “magnetism” that was “almost irresistible.” This habit of sitting on other men’s knees was, Quitt assures us, “an act less of homoerotic titillation than of homosocial bonding.” It’s hard to imagine any modern politician getting that grotesquely chummy. 

In the House, and especially the Senate, Douglas became a national figure. He tried to split the difference on slavery, ignoring its inherent immorality and insisting that every state and territory had the right to protect it, or not, as its people saw fit. This neutrality pleased neither those in the North, who found slavery an abomination and a threat to free men, nor those in the South, who insisted it be permitted to spread unimpeded into new territories. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), far from tamping down sectional hostility, whipped up a toxic swill of politics and violence which contributed directly to the explosion of the Civil War. 

It is interesting that his nonchalance toward slavery permeated his private life. His first marriage was to the daughter of a wealthy North Caro-lina slaveowner, and when she died, he oversaw a family plantation, and its benighted slaves, on behalf of their sons. At the time when he met his first wife, he spelled his last name “Douglass,” and Quitt offers an interesting theory for the dropped “s.” The celebrated autobiography of the escaped slave Frederick Doug-lass had been published a year earlier: “One can imagine that the congressman heard jokes about a putative kinship with the author of the slave narrative.”

Douglas’s finest hour was surely in 1860, when he realized he had no hope of winning the presidential race and instead ventured into the South—at the risk of assassination—to plead for sustaining the Union. (One newspaper in Montgomery, Alabama, questioned why “this insolent braggart” was coming to town, and eschewed local responsibility for any act a “desperado” might make in response.) At Lincoln’s inauguration the following March, legend holds, Douglas held the president’s stovepipe hat on his lap. After the fall of Fort Sumter, he declared that while he remained “unalterably opposed” to Lincoln’s political views, he was “prepared to sustain” the president in defending the country and the Constitution—setting a powerful example for Democrats in joining in the war effort. He died after a protracted illness in June 1861.

This somewhat choppy book offers events out of chronological order and with little narrative drive. Still, it throws an interesting light on certain aspects of Stephen A. Douglas’s life and career, bringing attention to a consequential man long lost in Lincoln’s shadow.

Edward Achorn, an editor at the Providence Journal, is the author of Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.