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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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.