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- Transcriber's Note: Original spellings and inconsistent hyphenation have been kept, including the earlier spelling variant Douglass. -
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STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS:
A STUDY IN AMERICAN POLITICS
By ALLEN JOHNSON
PROFESSOR OF HISTORY IN BOWDOIN COLLEGE; SOMETIME PROFESSOR OF HISTORY IN IOWA COLLEGE
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1908
All rights reserved
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By THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
Set up and electrotyped. Published February 1908
THE MASON-HENRY PRESS SYRACUSE, N.Y.
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PROFESSOR JESSE MACY
whose wisdom and kindliness have inspired a generation of students
To describe the career of a man who is now chiefly remembered as the rival of Abraham Lincoln, must seem to many minds a superfluous, if not invidious, undertaking. The present generation is prone to forget that when the rivals met in joint debate fifty years ago, on the prairies of Illinois, it was Senator Douglas, and not Mr. Lincoln, who was the cynosure of all observing eyes. Time has steadily lessened the prestige of the great Democratic leader, and just as steadily enhanced the fame of his Republican opponent.
The following pages have been written, not as a vindication, but as an interpretation of a personality whose life spans the controversial epoch before the Civil War. It is due to the chance reader to state that the writer was born in a New England home, and bred in an anti-slavery atmosphere where the political creed of Douglas could not thrive. If this book reveals a somewhat less sectional outlook than this personal allusion suggests, the credit must be given to those generous friends in the great Middle West, who have helped the writer to interpret the spirit of that region which gave both Douglas and Lincoln to the nation.
The material for this study has been brought together from many sources. Through the kindness of Mrs. James W. Patton of Springfield, Illinois, I have had access to a valuable collection of letters written by Douglas to her father, Charles H. Lanphier, Esq., editor of the Illinois State Register. Judge Robert M. Douglas of North Carolina has permitted me to use an autobiographical sketch of his father, as well as other papers in the possession of the family. Among those who have lightened my labors, either by copies of letters penned by Douglas or by personal recollections, I would mention with particular gratitude the late Mrs. L.K. Lippincott ("Grace Greenwood"); Mr. J.H. Roberts and Stephen A. Douglas, Esq. of Chicago; Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller and the late Hon. Robert E. Hitt of Washington. With his wonted generosity, Mr. James F. Rhodes has given me the benefit of his wide acquaintance with the newspapers of the period, which have been an invaluable aid in the interpretation of Douglas's career. Finally, by personal acquaintance and conversation with men who knew him, I have endeavored to catch the spirit of those who made up the great mass of his constituents.
BOOK I. THE CALL OF THE WEST
CHAPTER I FROM THE GREEN MOUNTAINS TO THE PRAIRIES 3
CHAPTER II THE RISE OF THE POLITICIAN 18
CHAPTER III LAW AND POLITICS 51
CHAPTER IV UNDER THE AEGIS OF ANDREW JACKSON 68
CHAPTER V MANIFEST DESTINY 84
CHAPTER VI WAR AND POLITICS 109
CHAPTER VII THE MEXICAN CESSION 127
BOOK II. THE DOCTRINE OF POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY
CHAPTER VIII SENATOR AND CONSTITUENCY 145
CHAPTER IX MEASURES OF ADJUSTMENT 166
CHAPTER X YOUNG AMERICA 191
CHAPTER XI THE KANSAS-NEBRASKA ACT 220
CHAPTER XII BLACK REPUBLICANISM 260
CHAPTER XIII THE TESTING OF POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY 281
BOOK III. THE IMPENDING CRISIS
CHAPTER XIV THE PERSONAL EQUATION 309
CHAPTER XV THE REVOLT OF DOUGLAS 324
CHAPTER XVI THE JOINT DEBATES WITH LINCOLN 348
CHAPTER XVII THE AFTERMATH 393
CHAPTER XVIII THE CAMPAIGN OF 1860 412
CHAPTER XIX THE MERGING OF THE PARTISAN IN THE PATRIOT 442
CHAPTER XX THE SUMMONS 475
THE CALL OF THE WEST
FROM THE GREEN MOUNTAINS TO THE PRAIRIES
The dramatic moments in the colonizing of coastal New England have passed into song, story, and sober chronicle; but the farther migration of the English people, from tide-water to interior, has been too prosaic a theme for poets and too diverse a movement for historians. Yet when all the factors in our national history shall be given their full value, none will seem more potent than the great racial drift from the New England frontier into the heart of the continent. The New Englanders who formed a broad belt from Vermont and New York across the Northwest to Kansas, were a social and political force of incalculable power, in the era which ended with the Civil War. The New Englander of the Middle West, however, ceased to be altogether a Yankee. The lake and prairie plains bred a spirit which contrasted strongly with the smug provincialism of rock-ribbed and sterile New England. The exultation born of wide, unbroken, horizon lines and broad, teeming, prairie landscapes, found expression in the often-quoted saying, "Vermont is the most glorious spot on the face of this globe for a man to be born in, provided he emigrates when he is very young." The career of Stephen Arnold Douglas is intelligible only as it is viewed against the background of a New England boyhood, a young manhood passed on the prairies of Illinois, and a wedded life pervaded by the gentle culture of Southern womanhood.
In America, observed De Tocqueville two generations ago, democracy disposes every man to forget his ancestors. When the Hon. Stephen A. Douglas was once asked to prepare an account of his career for a biographical history of Congress, he chose to omit all but the barest reference to his forefathers. Possibly he preferred to leave the family tree naked, that his unaided rise to eminence might the more impress the chance reader. Yet the records of the Douglass family are not uninteresting. The first of the name to cross the ocean was William Douglass, who was born in Scotland and who wedded Mary Ann, daughter of Thomas Marble of Northampton. Just when this couple left Old England is not known, but the birth of a son is recorded in Boston, in the year 1645. Soon after this event they removed to New London, preferring, it would seem, to try their luck in an outlying settlement, for this region was part of the Pequot country. Somewhat more than a hundred years later, Benajah Douglass, a descendant of this pair and grandfather of the subject of this sketch, pushed still farther into the interior, and settled in Rensselaer County, in the province of New York. The marriage of Benajah Douglass to Martha Arnold, a descendant of Governor William Arnold of Rhode Island, has an interest for those who are disposed to find Celtic qualities in the grandson, for the Arnolds were of Welsh stock, and may be supposed to have revived the strain in the Douglass blood.
Tradition has made Benajah Douglass a soldier in the war of the Revolution, but authentic records go no farther back than the year 1795, when he removed with his family to Brandon, Vermont. There he purchased a farm of about four hundred acres, which he must have cultivated with some degree of skill, since it seems to have yielded an ample competency. He is described as a man of genial, buoyant disposition, with much self-confidence. He was five times chosen selectman of Brandon; and five times he was elected to represent the town in the General Assembly. The physical qualities of the grandson may well have been a family inheritance, since of Benajah we read that he was of medium height, with large head and body, short neck, and short limbs.
The portrait of Benajah's son is far less distinct. He was a graduate of Middlebury College and a physician by profession. He married Sally Fisk, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer in Brandon, by whom he had two children, the younger of whom was Stephen Arnold Douglass, born April 23, 1813. The promising career of the young doctor was cut short by a sudden stroke, which overtook him as he held his infant son in his arms. The plain, little one-and-a-half story house, in which the boy first saw the light, suggests that the young physician had been unable to provide for more than the bare necessities of his family.
Soon after the death of Dr. Douglass, his widow removed to the farm which she and her unmarried brother had inherited from her father. The children grew to love this bachelor uncle with almost filial affection. Too young to take thought for the morrow, they led the wholesome, natural life of country children. Stephen went to the district school on the Brandon turnpike, and had no reason to bemoan the fate which left him largely dependent upon his uncle's generosity. An old school-mate recalls young Douglass through the haze of years, as a robust, healthy boy, with generous instincts though tenacious of his rights. After school hours work and play alternated. The regular farm chores were not the least part in the youngster's education; he learned to be industrious and not to despise honest labor.
This bare outline of a commonplace boyhood must be filled in with many details drawn from environment. Stephen fell heir to a wealth of inspiring local traditions. The fresh mountain breezes had also once blown full upon the anxious faces of heroes and patriots; the quiet valleys had once echoed with the noise of battle; this land of the Green Mountains was the Wilderness of colonial days, the frontier for restless New Englanders, where with good axe and stout heart they had carved their home plots out of the virgin forest. Many a legend of adventure, of border warfare, and of personal heroism, was still current among the Green Mountain folk. Where was the Vermont lad who did not fight over again the battles of Bennington, Ticonderoga, and Plattsburg?
Other influences were scarcely less formative in the life of the growing boy. Vermont was also the land of the town meeting. Whatever may be said of the efficiency of town government, it was and is a school of democracy. In Vermont it was the natural political expression of social forces. How else, indeed, could the general will find fit expression, except through the attrition of many minds? And who could know better the needs of the community than the commonalty? Not that men reasoned about the philosophy of their political institutions: they simply accepted them. And young Douglass grew up in an atmosphere friendly to local self-government of an extreme type.
Stephen was nearing his fourteenth birthday, when an event occurred which interrupted the even current of his life. His uncle, who was commonly regarded as a confirmed old bachelor, confounded the village gossips by bringing home a young bride. The birth of a son and heir was the nephew's undoing. While the uncle regarded Stephen with undiminished affection, he was now much more emphatically in loco parentis. An indefinable something had come between them. The subtle change in relationship was brought home to both when Stephen proposed that he should go to the academy in Brandon, to prepare for college. That he was to go to college, he seems to have taken for granted. There was a moment of embarrassment, and then the uncle told the lad, frankly but kindly, that he could not provide for his further education. With considerable show of affection, he advised him to give up the notion of going to college and to remain on the farm, where he would have an assured competence. In after years the grown man related this incident with a tinge of bitterness, averring that there had been an understanding in the family that he was to attend college. Momentary disappointment he may have felt, to be sure, but he could hardly have been led to believe that he could draw indefinitely upon his uncle's bounty.
Piqued and somewhat resentful, Stephen made up his mind to live no longer under his uncle's roof. He would show his spirit by proving that he was abundantly able to take care of himself. Much against the wishes of his mother, who knew him to be mastered by a boyish whim, he apprenticed himself to Nahum Parker, a cabinet-maker in Middlebury. He put on his apron, went to work sawing table legs from two-inch planks, and, delighted with the novelty of the occupation and exhilarated by his newly found sense of freedom, believed himself on the highway to happiness and prosperity. He found plenty of companions with whom he spent his idle hours, young fellows who had a taste for politics and who rapidly kindled in the newcomer a consuming admiration for Andrew Jackson. He now began to read with avidity such political works as came to hand. Discussion with his new friends and with his employer, who was an ardent supporter of Adams and Clay, whetted his appetite for more reading and study. In after years he was wont to say that these were the happiest days of his life.
Toward the end of the year, he became dissatisfied with his employer because he was forced to perform "some menial services in the house." He wished his employer to know that he was not a household servant, but an apprentice. Further difficulties arose, which terminated his apprenticeship in Middlebury. Returning to Brandon, he entered the shop of Deacon Caleb Knowlton, also a cabinet-maker; but in less than a year he quit this employer on the plea of ill-health. It is quite likely that the confinement and severe manual labor may have overtaxed the strength of the growing boy; but it is equally clear that he had lost his taste for cabinet work. He never again expressed a wish to follow a trade. He again took up his abode with his mother; and, the means now coming to hand from some source, he enrolled as a student in Brandon Academy, with the avowed purpose of preparing for a professional career. It was a wise choice. Vermont may have lost a skilled handworker—there are those who vouch for the excellence of his handiwork—but the Union gained a joiner of first-rate ability.
Wedding bells rang in another change in his fortunes. The marriage of his sister to a young New Yorker from Ontario County, was followed by the marriage of his mother to the father, Gehazi Granger. Both couples took up their residence on the Granger estate, and thither also went Stephen, with perhaps a sense of loneliness in his boyish heart. He was then but seventeen. This removal to New York State proved to be his first step along a path which Vermonters were wearing toward the West.
Happily, his academic course was not long interrupted by this migration, for Canandaigua Academy, which offered unusual advantages, was within easy reach from his new home. Under the wise instruction of Professor Henry Howe, he began the study of Latin and Greek; and by his own account made "considerable improvement," though there is little evidence in his later life of any acquaintance with the classics. He took an active part in the doings of the literary societies of the academy, distinguishing himself by his readiness in debate. His Democratic proclivities were still strong; and he became an ardent defender of Democracy against the rising tide of Anti-Masonry, which was threatening to sweep New York from its political moorings. Tradition says that young Douglass mingled much with local politicians, learning not a little about the arts and devices by which the Albany Regency controlled the Democratic organization in the State. In this school of practical politics he was beyond a peradventure an apt pupil.
A characteristic story is told of Douglass during these school days at Canandaigua. A youngster who occupied a particularly desirable seat at table had been ousted by another lad, who claimed a better right to the place. Some one suggested that the claimants should have the case argued by counsel before a board of arbitration. The dispossessed boy lost his case, because of the superior skill with which Douglass presented the claims of his client. "It was the first assertion of the doctrine of squatter sovereignty," said the defeated claimant, recalling the incident years afterward, when both he and Douglas were in politics.
Douglass was now maturing rapidly. His ideals were clearer; his native tastes more pronounced. It is not improbable that already he looked forward to politics as a career. At all events he took the proximate step toward that goal by beginning the study of law in the office of local attorneys, at the same time continuing his studies begun in the academy. What marked him off from his comrades even at this period was his lively acquisitiveness. He seemed to learn quite as much by indirection as by persevering application to books.
In the spring of 1833, the same unrest that sent the first Douglass across the sea to the new world, seized the young man. Against the remonstrances of his mother and his relatives, he started for the great West which then spelled opportunity to so many young men. He was only twenty years old, and he had not yet finished his academic course; but with the impatience of ambition he was reluctant to spend four more years in study before he could gain admission to the bar. In the newer States of the West conditions were easier. Moreover, he was no longer willing to be a burden to his mother, whose resources were limited. And so, with purposes only half formed and with only enough money for his immediate needs, he began, not so much a journey, as a drift in a westerly direction, for he had no particular destination in view.
After a short stay in Buffalo and a visit to Niagara Falls and the battle ground of Chippewa, the boy took a steamboat to Cleveland, where happily he found a friend in Sherlock J. Andrews, Esquire, a successful attorney and a man of kindly impulses. Finding the city attractive and the requirements for the Ohio bar less rigorous, Douglass determined to drop anchor in this pleasant port. Mr. Andrews encouraged him in this purpose, offering the use of his office and law library. In a single year Douglass hoped to gain admission to the bar. With characteristic energy, he began his studies. Fate ruled, however, that his career should not be linked with the Western Reserve. Within a few days he was prostrated by that foe which then lurked in the marshes and lowlands of the West—foe more dreaded than the redman—malarial typhoid. For four weary months he kept his bed, hovering between life and death, until the heat of summer was spent and the first frosts of October came to revive him. Urgent appeals now came to him to return home; but pride kept him from yielding. After paying all his bills, he still had forty dollars left. He resolved to push on farther into the interior.
He was far from well when he took the canal boat from Cleveland to Portsmouth on the Ohio river; but he was now in a reckless and adventurous mood. He would test his luck by pressing on to Cincinnati. He had no well-defined purpose: he was in a listless mood, which was no doubt partly the result of physical exhaustion. From Cincinnati he drifted on to Louisville, and then to St. Louis. His small funds were now almost all spent. He must soon find occupation or starve. His first endeavor was to find a law office where he could earn enough by copying and other work to pay his expenses while he continued his law studies. No such opening fell in his way and he had no letters of introduction here to smooth his path. He was now convinced that he must seek some small country town. Hearing that Jacksonville, Illinois, was a thriving settlement, he resolved to try his luck in this quarter. With much the same desperation with which a gambler plays his last stake, he took passage on a river boat up the Illinois, and set foot upon the soil of the great prairie State.
A primitive stage coach plied between the river and Jacksonville. Too fatigued to walk the intervening distance, Douglass mounted the lumbering vehicle and ruefully paid his fare. From this point of vantage he took in the prairie landscape. Morgan County was then but sparsely populated. Timber fringed the creeks and the river bottoms, while the prairie grass grew rank over soil of unsuspected fertility. Most dwellings were rude structures made of rough-hewn logs and designed as makeshifts. Wildcats and wolves prowled through the timber lands in winter, and game of all sorts abounded. As the stage swung lazily along, the lad had ample time to let the first impression of the prairie landscape sink deep. In the timber, the trees were festooned with bitter-sweet and with vines bearing wild grapes; in the open country, nothing but unmeasured stretches of waving grass caught the eye. To one born and bred among the hills, this broad horizon and unbroken landscape must have been a revelation. Weak as he was, Douglass drew in the fresh autumnal air with zest, and unconsciously borrowed from the face of nature a sense of unbounded capacity. Years afterward, when he was famous, he testified, "I found my mind liberalized and my opinions enlarged, when I got on these broad prairies, with only the heavens to bound my vision, instead of having them circumscribed by the little ridges that surrounded the valley where I was born." But of all this he was unconscious, when he alighted from the stage in Jacksonville. He was simply a wayworn lad, without a friend in the town and with only one dollar and twenty-five cents in his pocket.
Jacksonville was then hardly more than a crowded village of log cabins on the outposts of civilized Illinois. Comfort was not among the first concerns of those who had come to subdue the wilderness. Comfort implied leisure to enjoy, and leisure was like Heaven,—to be attained only after a wearisome earthly pilgrimage. Jacksonville had been scourged by the cholera during the summer; and those who had escaped the disease had fled the town for fear of it. By this time, however, the epidemic had spent itself, and the refugees had returned. All told, the town had a population of about one thousand souls, among whom were no less than eleven lawyers, or at least those who called themselves such.
A day's lodging at the Tavern ate up the remainder of the wanderer's funds, so that he was forced to sell a few school books that he had brought with him. Meanwhile he left no stone unturned to find employment to his liking. One of his first acquaintances was Murray McConnell, a lawyer, who advised him to go to Pekin, farther up the Illinois River, and open a law office. The young man replied that he had no license to practice law and no law books. He was assured that a license was a matter of no consequence, since anyone could practice before a justice of the peace, and he could procure one at his leisure. As for books, McConnell, with true Western generosity, offered to loan such as would be of immediate use. So again Douglass took up his travels. At Meredosia, the nearest landing on the river, he waited a week for the boat upstream. There was no other available route to Pekin. Then came the exasperating intelligence, that the only boat which plied between these points had blown up at Alton. After settling accounts with the tavern-keeper, he found that he had but fifty cents left.
There was now but one thing to do, since hard manual labor was out of the question: he would teach school. But where? Meredosia was a forlorn, thriftless place, and he had no money to travel. Fortunately, a kind-hearted farmer befriended him, lodging him at his house over night and taking him next morning to Exeter, where there was a prospect of securing a school. Disappointment again awaited him; but Winchester, ten miles away, was said to need a teacher. Taking his coat on his arm—he had left his trunk at Meredosia—he set off on foot for Winchester.
Accident, happily turned to his profit, served to introduce him to the townspeople of Winchester. The morning after his arrival, he found a crowd in the public square and learned that an auction sale of personal effects was about to take place. Everyone from the administrator of the estate to the village idler, was eager for the sale to begin. But a clerk to keep record of the sales and to draw the notes was wanting. The eye of the administrator fell upon Douglass; something in the youth's appearance gave assurance that he could "cipher.". The impatient bystanders "'lowed that he might do," so he was given a trial. Douglass proved fully equal to the task, and in two days was in possession of five dollars for his pains.
Through the good will of the village storekeeper, who also hailed from Vermont, Douglass was presented to several citizens who wished to see a school opened in town; and by the first Monday in December he had a subscription list of forty scholars, each of whom paid three dollars for three months' tuition. Luck was now coming his way. He found lodgings under the roof of this same friendly compatriot, the village storekeeper, who gave him the use of a small room adjoining the store-room. Here Douglass spent his evenings, devoting some hours to his law books and perhaps more to comfortable chats with his host and talkative neighbors around the stove. For diversion he had the weekly meetings of the Lyceum, which had just been formed. He owed much to this institution, for the the debates and discussions gave him a chance to convert the traditional leadership which fell to him as village schoolmaster, into a real leadership of talent and ready wit. In this Lyceum he made his first political speech, defending Andrew Jackson and his attack upon the Bank against Josiah Lamborn, a lawyer from Jacksonville. For a young man he proved himself astonishingly well-informed. If the chronology of his autobiography may be accepted, he had already read the debates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Federalist, the works of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the recent debates in Congress.
Even while he was teaching school, Douglass found time to practice law in a modest way before the justices of the peace; and when the first of March came, he closed the schoolhouse door on his career as pedagogue. He at once repaired to Jacksonville and presented himself before a justice of the Supreme Court for license to practice law. After a short examination, which could not have been very searching, he was duly admitted to the bar of Illinois. He still lacked a month of being twenty-one years of age. Measured by the standard of older communities in the East, he knew little law; but there were few cases in these Western courts which required much more than common-sense, ready speech, and acquaintance with legal procedure. Stare decisis was a maxim that did not trouble the average lawyer, for there were few decisions to stand upon. Besides, experience would make good any deficiencies of preparation.
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[Footnote 1: There can be little doubt that he supplied the data for the sketch in Wheeler's Biographical and Political History of Congress.]
[Footnote 2: See Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1901, pp. 113-114.]
[Footnote 3: Vermont Historical Gazetteer, III, p. 457.]
[Footnote 4: Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1901, p. 115.]
[Footnote 5: Mr. B.F. Field in the Vermonter, January, 1897.]
[Footnote 6: For many facts relating to Douglas's life, I am indebted to an unpublished autobiographical sketch in the possession of his son, Judge R.M. Douglas, of Greensboro, North Carolina.]
[Footnote 7: Wheeler, Biographical History of Congress, p. 61; also MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 8: Troy Whig, July 6, 1860.]
[Footnote 9: MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 10: Ibid.]
[Footnote 11: MS. Autobiography; see Wheeler, Biographical History, p. 62.]
[Footnote 12: Ibid.]
[Footnote 13: Vermonter, January, 1897.]
[Footnote 14: MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 15: This story was repeated to me by Judge Douglas, on the authority, I believe, of Senator Lapham of New York.]
[Footnote 16: This is the impression of all who knew him personally, then and afterward. See Arnold, Reminiscences of the Illinois Bar.]
[Footnote 17: MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 18: MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 19: MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 20: Kirby, Sketch of Joseph Duncan in Fergus Historical Series No. 29; also Historic Morgan, p. 60.]
[Footnote 21: Ibid.]
[Footnote 22: Speech at Jonesboro, in the debate with Lincoln, Sept. 15, 1858.]
[Footnote 23: MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 24: Kirby, Joseph Duncan.]
[Footnote 25: James S. Anderson in Historic Morgan.]
[Footnote 26: Peck, Gazetteer of Illinois, 1834.]
[Footnote 27: MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 28: Ibid.]
[Footnote 29: MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 30: Ibid.]
[Footnote 31: Letter of E.G. Miner, January, 1877, in Proceedings of the Illinois Association of Sons of Vermont.]
[Footnote 32: Ibid.]
[Footnote 33: Ibid.; MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 34: MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 35: Hon. J.C. Conkling in Fergus Historical Series, No. 22.]
THE RISE OF THE POLITICIAN
The young attorney who opened a law office in the Court House at Jacksonville, bore little resemblance to the forlorn lad who had vainly sought a livelihood there some months earlier. The winter winds of the prairies, so far from racking the frame of the convalescent, had braced and toned his whole system. When spring came, he was in the best of health and full of animal spirits. He entered upon his new life with zest. Here was a people after his own heart; a generous, wholesome, optimistic folk. He opened his heart to them, and, of course, hospitable doors opened to him. He took society as he found it, rude perhaps, but genuine. With plenty of leisure at command, he mingled freely with young people of his own age; he joined the boisterous young fellows in their village sports; he danced with the maidens; and he did not forget to cultivate the good graces of their elders. Mothers liked his animation and ready gallantry; fathers found him equally responsive on more serious matters of conversation. Altogether, he was a very general favorite in a not too fastidious society.
Nor was the circle of the young attorney's acquaintances limited to Jacksonville. As the county seat and most important town in Morgan County, Jacksonville was a sort of rural emporium. Thither came farmers from the country round about, to market their produce and to purchase their supplies. The town had an unwontedly busy aspect on Saturdays. This was the day which drew women to town. While they did their shopping, the men loitered on street corners, or around the Court House, to greet old acquaintances. Douglass was sure to be found among them, joining in that most subtle of all social processes, the forming of public opinion. Moving about from group to group, with his pockets stuffed with newspapers, he became a familiar figure. Plain farmers, in clothes soiled with the rich loam of the prairies, enjoyed hearing the young fellow express so pointedly their own nascent convictions.
This forum was an excellent school for the future politician. The dust might accumulate upon his law books: he was learning unwritten law in the hearts of these countrymen. And yet, even at this time, he exhibited a certain maturity. There seems never to have been a time when the arts of the politician were not instinctive in him. He had no boyish illusions to outlive regarding the nature and conditions of public life. His perfect self-possession attested this mental maturity.
One of the first friendships which the young lawyer formed in his new home was with S.S. Brooks, Esq., editor of the Jacksonville News. While Douglass was still in Winchester, the first issue of this sheet had appeared; and he had written a complimentary letter to Brooks, congratulating him on his enterprise. The grateful editor never forgot this kindly word of encouragement. The intimacy which followed was of great value to the younger man, who needed just the advertising which the editor was in a position to give. The bond between them was their devotion to the fortunes of Andrew Jackson. Together they labored to consolidate the Democratic forces of the county, with results which must have surprised even the sanguine young lawyer.
The political situation in Morgan County, as the State election approached, is not altogether clear. President Jackson's high-handed acts, particularly his attitude toward the National Bank, had alarmed many men who had supported him in 1832. There were defections in the ranks of the Democracy. The State elections would surely turn on national issues. The Whigs were noisy, assertive, and confident. Largely through the efforts of Brooks and Douglass, the Democrats of Jacksonville were persuaded to call a mass-meeting of all good Democrats in the county. It was on this occasion, very soon after his arrival in town, that Douglass made his debut on the political stage.
It is said that accident brought the young lawyer into prominence at this meeting. A well-known Democrat who was to have presented resolutions, demurred, at the last minute, and thrust the copy into Douglass' hands, bidding him read them. The Court House was full to overflowing with interested observers of this little by-play. Excitement ran high, for the opposition within the party was vehement in its protest to cut-and-dried resolutions commending Jackson. An older man with more discretion and modesty, would have hesitated to face the audience; but Douglass possessed neither retiring modesty nor the sobriety which comes with years. He not only read the resolutions, but he defended them with such vigorous logic and with such caustic criticism of Whigs and half-hearted Democrats, that he carried the meeting with him in tumultuous approval of the course of Andrew Jackson, past and present.
The next issue of the Patriot, the local Whig paper, devoted two columns to the speech of this young Democratic upstart; and for weeks thereafter the editor flayed him on all possible occasions. The result was such an enviable notoriety for the young attorney among Whigs and such fame among Democrats, that he received collection demands to the amount of thousands of dollars from persons whom he had never seen or known. In after years, looking back on these beginnings, he used to wonder whether he ought not to have paid the editor of the Patriot for his abuse, according to the usual advertising rates. The political outcome was not in every respect so gratifying. The Democratic county ticket was elected and a Democratic congressman from the district; but the Whigs elected their candidate for governor.
A factional quarrel among members of his own party gave Douglass his reward for services to the cause of Democracy, and his first political office. Captain John Wyatt nursed a grudge against John J. Hardin, Esq., who had been elected State's attorney for the district through his influence, but who had subsequently proved ungrateful. Wyatt had been re-elected member of the legislature, however, in spite of Hardin's opposition, and now wished to revenge himself, by ousting Hardin from his office. With this end in view, Wyatt had Douglass draft a bill making the State's attorneys elective by the legislature, instead of subject to the governor's appointment. Since the new governor was a Whig, he could not be used by the Democrats. The bill met with bitter opposition, for it was alleged that it had no other purpose than to vacate Hardin's office for the benefit of Douglass. This was solemnly denied; but when the bill had been declared unconstitutional by the Council of Revision, Douglass' friends made desperate exertions to pass the bill over the veto, with the now openly avowed purpose to elect him to the office. The bill passed, and on the 10th of February, 1835, the legislature in joint session elected the boyish lawyer State's attorney for the first judicial district, by a majority of four votes over an attorney of experience and recognized merit. It is possible, as Douglass afterward averred, that he neither coveted the office nor believed himself fitted for it; and that his judgment was overruled by his friends. But he accepted the office, nevertheless.
When Douglas,—for he had now begun to drop the superfluous s in the family name, for simplicity's sake,—set out on his judicial circuit, he was not an imposing figure. There was little in his boyish face to command attention, except his dark-blue, lustrous eyes. His big head seemed out of proportion to his stunted figure. He measured scarcely over five feet and weighed less than a hundred and ten pounds. Astride his horse, he looked still more diminutive. His mount was a young horse which he had borrowed. He carried under his arm a single book, also loaned, a copy of the criminal law. His chief asset was a large fund of Yankee shrewdness and good nature.
An amusing incident occurred in McLean County at the first court which Douglas attended. There were many indictments to be drawn, and the new prosecuting attorney, in his haste, misspelled the name of the county—M Clean instead of M'Lean. His professional brethren were greatly amused at this evidence of inexperience; and made merry over the blunder. Finally, John T. Stuart, subsequently Douglas's political rival, moved that all the indictments be quashed. Judge Logan asked the discomfited youth what he had to say to support the indictments. Smarting under the gibes of Stuart, Douglas replied obstinately that he had nothing to say, as he supposed the Court would not quash the indictments until the point had been proven. This answer aroused more merriment; but the Judge decided that the Court could not rule upon the matter, until the precise spelling in the statute creating the county had been ascertained. No one doubted what the result would be; but at least Douglas had the satisfaction of causing his critics some annoyance and two days' delay, for the statutes had to be procured from an adjoining county. To the astonishment of Court and Bar, and of Douglas himself, it appeared that Douglas had spelled the name correctly. To the indescribable chagrin of the learned Stuart, the Court promptly sustained all the indictments. The young attorney was in high feather; and he made the most of his triumph. The incident taught him a useful lesson: henceforth he would admit nothing, and require his opponents to prove everything that bore upon the case in hand. Some time later, upon comparing the printed statute of the county with the enrolled bill in the office of the Secretary of State, Douglas found that the printer had made a mistake and that the name of the county should have been M'Lean.
On the whole Douglas seems to have discharged his not very onerous duties acceptably. The more his fellow practitioners saw of him, the more respect they had for him. Moreover, they liked him personally. His wholesome frankness disarmed ill-natured opponents; his generosity made them fast friends. There was not an inn or hostelry in the circuit, which did not welcome the sight of the talkative, companionable, young district attorney.
Politically as well as socially, Illinois was in a transitional stage. Although political parties existed, they were rather loose associations of men holding similar political convictions than parties in the modern sense with permanent organs of control. He who would might stand for office, either announcing his own candidacy in the newspapers, or if his modesty forbade this course, causing such an announcement to be made by "many voters." In benighted districts, where the light of the press did not shine, the candidate offered himself in person. Even after the advent of Andrew Jackson in national politics, allegiance to party was so far subordinated to personal ambition, that it was no uncommon occurrence for several candidates from each party to enter the lists. From the point of view of party, this practice was strategically faulty, since there was always the possibility that the opposing party might unite on a single candidate. What was needed to insure the success of party was the rationale of an army. But organization was abhorrent to people so tenacious of their personal freedom as Illinoisans, because organization necessitated the subordination of the individual to the centralized authority of the group. To the average man organization spelled dictation.
The first step in the effective control of nominations by party in Illinois, was taken by certain Democrats, foremost among whom was S.A. Douglas, Esq. His rise as a politician, indeed, coincides with this development of party organization and machinery. The movement began sporadically in several counties. At the instance of Douglas and his friend Brooks of the News, the Democrats of Morgan County put themselves on record as favoring a State convention to choose delegates to the national convention of 1836. County after county adopted the suggestion, until the movement culminated in a well-attended convention at Vandalia in April, 1835. Not all counties were represented, to be sure, and no permanent organization was effected; but provision was made for a second convention in December, to nominate presidential electors. Among the delegates from Morgan County in this December convention was Douglas, burning with zeal for the consolidation of his party. Signs were not wanting that he was in league with other zealots to execute a sort of coup d'etat within the party. Early in the session, one Ebenezer Peck, recently from Canada, boldly proposed that the convention should proceed to nominate not only presidential electors but candidates for State offices as well. A storm of protests broke upon his head, and for the moment he was silenced; but on the second day, he and his confidants succeeded in precipitating a general discussion of the convention system. Peck—contemptuously styled "the Canadian" by his enemies—secured the floor and launched upon a vigorous defense of the nominating convention as a piece of party machinery. He thought it absurd to talk of a man's having a right to become a candidate for office without the indorsement of his party. He believed it equally irrational to allow members of the party to consult personal preferences in voting. The members of the party must submit to discipline, if they expected to secure control of office. Confusion again reigned. The presiding officer left the chair precipitately, denouncing the notions of Peck as anti-republican.
In the exciting wrangle that followed, Douglas was understood to say that he had seen the workings of the nominating convention in New York, and he knew it to be the only way to manage elections successfully. The opposition had overthrown the great DeWitt Clinton only by organizing and adopting the convention system. Gentlemen were mistaken who feared that the people of the West had enjoyed their own opinions too long to submit quietly to the wise regulations of a convention. He knew them better: he had himself had the honor of introducing the nominating convention into Morgan County, where it had already prostrated one individual high in office. These wise admonitions from a mere stripling failed to mollify the conservatives. The meeting broke up in disorder, leaving the party with divided counsels.
Successful county and district conventions did much to break down the resistance to the system. During the following months, Morgan County, and the congressional district to which it belonged, became a political experiment station. A convention at Jacksonville in April not only succeeded in nominating one candidate for each elective office, but also in securing the support of the disappointed aspirants for office, which under the circumstances was in itself a triumph. Taking their cue from the enemy, the Whigs of Morgan County also united upon a ticket for the State offices, at the head of which was John J. Hardin, a formidable campaigner. When the canvass was fairly under way, not a man could be found on the Democratic ticket to hold his own with Hardin on the hustings. The ticket was then reorganized so as to make a place for Douglas, who was already recognized as one of the ablest debaters in the county. Just how this transposition was effected is not clear. Apparently one of the nominees of the convention for State representative was persuaded to withdraw. The Whigs promptly pointed out the inconsistency of this performance. "What are good Democrats to do?" asked the Sangamo Journal mockingly. Douglas had told them to vote for no man who had not been nominated by a caucus!
The Democrats committed also another tactical blunder. The county convention had adjourned without appointing delegates to the congressional district convention, which was to be held at Peoria. Such of the delegates as had remained in town, together with resident Democrats, were hastily reassembled to make good this omission. Douglas and eight others were accredited to the Peoria convention; but when they arrived, they found only four other delegates present, one from each of four counties. Nineteen counties were unrepresented. Evidently there was little or no interest in this political innovation. In no wise disheartened, however, these thirteen delegates declared themselves a duly authorized district convention and put candidates in nomination for the several offices. Again the Whig press scored their opponents. "Our citizens cannot be led at the dictation of a dozen unauthorized individuals, but will act as freemen," said the Sangamo Journal. There were stalwart Democrats, too, who refused to put on "the Caucus collar." Douglas and his "Peoria Humbug Convention" were roundly abused on all sides. The young politician might have replied, and doubtless did reply, that the rank and file had not yet become accustomed to the system, and that the bad roads and inclement weather were largely responsible for the slim attendance at Peoria.
The campaign was fought with the inevitable concomitants of an Illinois election. The weapons that slew the adversary were not always forged by logic. In rude regions, where the rougher border element congregated, country stores were subsidized by candidates, and liquor liberally dispensed. The candidate who refused to treat was doomed. He was the last man to get a hearing, when the crowds gathered on Saturday nights to hear the candidates discuss the questions at issue. To speak from an improvised rostrum—"the stump"—to a boisterous throng of men who had already accepted the orator's hospitality at the store, was no light ordeal. This was the school of oratory in which Douglas was trained.
The election of all but one of the Democratic nominees was hailed as a complete vindication of the nominating convention as a piece of party machinery. Douglas shared the elation of his fellow workers, even though he was made to feel that his nomination was not due to this much-vaunted caucus system. At all events, the value of organization and discipline had been demonstrated. The day of the professional politician and of the machine was dawning in the frontier State of Illinois.
During the campaign there had been much wild talk about internal improvements. The mania which had taken possession of the people in most Western States had affected the grangers of Illinois. It amounted to an obsession. The State was called upon to use its resources and unlimited credit to provide a market for their produce, by supplying transportation facilities for every aspiring community. Elsewhere State credit was building canals and railroads: why should Illinois, so generously endowed by nature, lag behind? Where crops were spoiling for a market, farmers were not disposed to inquire into the mysteries of high finance and the nature of public credit. All doubts were laid to rest by the magic phrase "natural resources." Mass-meetings here and there gave propulsion to the movement. Candidates for State office were forced to make the maddest pledges. A grand demonstration was projected at Vandalia just as the legislature assembled.
The legislature which met in December, 1836, is one of the most memorable, and least creditable, in the annals of Illinois. In full view of the popular demonstrations at the capital, the members could not remained unmoved and indifferent to the demands of their constituents, if they wished. Besides, the great majority were already committed in favor of internal improvements in some form. The subject dwarfed all others. For a time two sessions a day were held; and special committees prolonged their labors far into the night. Petitions from every quarter deluged the assembly.
A plan for internal improvements had already taken shape in the mind of the young representative from Morgan County. He made haste to lay it before his colleagues. First of all, he would have the State complete the Illinois and Michigan canal, and improve the navigation of the Illinois and Wabash rivers. Then he would have two railroads constructed which would cross the State from north to south, and from east to west. For these purposes he would negotiate a loan, pledging the credit of the State, and meet the interest payments by judicious sales of the public lands which had been granted by the Federal government for the construction of the Illinois and Michigan canal. The most creditable feature of these proposals is their moderation. This youth of twenty-three evinced far more conservatism than many colleagues twice his age.
There was not the slightest prospect, however, that moderate views would prevail. Log-rolling had already begun; the lobby was active; and every member of the legislature who had pledged himself to his constituents was solicitous that his section of the State should not be passed over, in the general scramble for appropriations. In the end a bill was drawn, which proposed to appropriate no less than $10,230,000 for public works. A sum of $500,000 was set aside for river improvements, but the remainder was to be expended in the construction of eight railroads. A sop of $200,000 was tossed to those counties through which no canal or railroad was to pass. What were prudent men to do? Should they support this bill, which they believed to be thoroughly pernicious, or incur the displeasure of their constituents by defeating this, and probably every other, project for the session? Douglas was put in a peculiarly trying position. He had opposed this "mammoth bill," but he knew his constituents favored it. With great reluctance, he voted for the bill. He was not minded to immolate himself on the altar of public economy at the very threshold of his career.
Much the same issue was forced upon Douglas in connection with the Illinois and Michigan canal. Unexpected obstacles to the construction of the canal had been encountered. To allow the waters of Lake Michigan to flow through the projected canal, it was found that a cut eighteen feet deep would have to be made for twenty-eight miles through solid rock. The cost of such an undertaking would exceed the entire appropriation. It was then suggested that a shallow cut might be made above the level of Lake Michigan which would then permit the Calumet River or the Des Plaines, to be used as a feeder. The problem was one for expert engineers to solve; but it devolved upon an ignorant assembly, which seems to have done its best to reduce the problem to a political equation. A majority of the House—Douglas among them—favored a shallow cut, while the Senate voted for the deep cut. The deadlock continued for some weeks, until a conference committee succeeded in agreeing upon the Senate's programme. As a member of the conferring committee, Douglas vigorously opposed this settlement, but on the final vote in the House he yielded his convictions. In after years he took great satisfaction in pointing out—as evidence of his prescience—that the State became financially embarrassed and had finally to adopt the shallow cut.
The members of the 10th General Assembly have not been wont to point with pride to their record. With a few notable exceptions they had fallen victims to a credulity which had become epidemic. When the assembly of 1840 repealed this magnificent act for the improvement of Illinois, they encountered an accumulated indebtedness of over $14,000,000. There are other aspects of the assembly of 1836-37 upon which it is pleasanter to dwell.
As chairman of a committee on petitions Douglas rendered a real service to public morality. The general assembly had been wont upon petition to grant divorces by special acts. Before the legislature had been in session ten days, no less than four petitions for divorces had been received. It was a custom reflecting little credit upon the State. Reporting for his committee, Douglas contended that the legislature had no power to grant divorces, but only to enact salutary laws, which should state the circumstances under which divorces might be granted by the courts. The existing practice, he argued, was contrary to those provisions of the constitution which expressly separated the three departments of government. Moreover, everyone recognized the injustice and unwisdom of dissolving marriage contracts by act of legislature, upon ex parte evidence. Without expressing an opinion on the constitutional questions involved, the assembly accepted the main recommendation of the committee, that henceforth the legislature should not grant bills of divorce.
One of the recurring questions during this session was whether the State capital should be moved. Vandalia was an insignificant town, difficult of access and rapidly falling far south of the center of population in the State. Springfield was particularly desirous to become the capital, though there were other towns which had claims equally strong. The Sangamon County delegation was annoyingly aggressive in behalf of their county seat. They were a conspicuous group, not merely because of their stature, which earned for them the nickname of "the Long Nine," but also because they were men of real ability and practical shrewdness. By adroit management, a vote was first secured to move the capital from Vandalia, and then to locate it at Springfield. Unquestionably there was some trading of votes in return for special concessions in the Internal Improvements bill. It is said that Abraham Lincoln was the virtual head of the Sangamon delegation, and the chief promoter of the project.
Soon after the adjournment of the legislature, Douglas resigned his seat to become Register of the Land Office at Springfield; and when "the Long Nine" returned to their constituents and were feted and banqueted by the grateful citizens of Springfield, Douglas sat among the guests of honor. It began to be rumored about that the young man owed his appointment to the Sangamon delegation, whose schemes he had industriously furthered in the legislature. Finally, the Illinois Patriot made the direct accusation of bargain. Touched to the quick, Douglas wrote a letter to the editor which fairly bristles with righteous indignation. His circumstantial denial of the charge,—his well-known opposition to the removal of the capital and to all the schemes of the Sangamon delegation during the session,—cleared him of all complicity. Indeed, Douglas was too zealous a partisan to play into the hands of the Sangamon Whigs.
The advent of the young Register at the Land Office was noted by the Sangamo Whig Journal in these words: "The Land Office at this place was opened on Monday last. We are told the little man from Morgan was perfectly astonished, at finding himself making money at the rate of from one to two hundred dollars a day!" This sarcastic comment is at least good evidence that the office was doing a thriving business. In two respects Douglas had bettered himself by this change of occupation. He could not afford to hold his seat in the legislature with its small salary. Now he was assured of a competence. Besides, as a resident of Springfield, he could keep in touch with politics at the future capital and bide his time until he was again promoted for conspicuous service to his party.
The educative value of his new office was no small consideration to the young lawyer. He not only kept the records and plans of surveys within his district, but put up each tract at auction, in accordance with the proclamation of the President, and issued certificates of sale to all purchasers, describing the land purchased. The duties were not onerous, but they required considerable familiarity with land laws and with the practical difficulties arising from imperfect surveys, pre-emption rights, and conflicting claims. Daily contact with the practical aspects of the public land policy of the country, seems to have opened his eyes to the significance of the public domain as a national asset. With all his realism, Douglas was gifted with a certain sort of imagination in things political. He not only saw what was obvious to the dullest clerk,—the revenue derived from land sales,—but also those intangible and prospective gains which would accrue to State and nation from the occupation and cultivation of the national domain. He came to believe that, even if not a penny came into the treasury, the government would still be richer from having parcelled out the great uninhabited wastes in the West. Beneath the soiled and uncomely exterior of the Western pioneer, native or foreigner, Douglas discerned not only a future tax-bearer, but the founder of Commonwealths.
Only isolated bits of tradition throw light upon the daily life of the young Register of the Land Office. All point to the fact that politics was his absorbing interest. He had no avocations; he had no private life, no esoteric tastes which invite a prying curiosity; he had no subtle aspects of character and temperament which sometimes make even commonplace lives dramatic. His life was lived in the open. Lodging at the American Tavern, he was always seen in company with other men. Diller's drug-store, near the old market, was a familiar rendezvous for him and his boon companions. Just as he had no strong interests which were not political, so his intimates were likely to be his political confreres. He had no literary tastes: if he read at all, he read law or politics. Yet while these characteristics suggest narrowness, they were perhaps the inevitable outcome of a society possessing few cultural resources and refinements, but tremendous directness of purpose.
One of the haunts of Douglas in these Springfield days was the office of the Republican, a Democratic journal then edited by the Webers. There he picked up items of political gossip and chatted with the chance comer, or with habitues like himself. He was a welcome visitor, just the man whom a country editor, mauling over hackneyed matter, likes to have stimulate his flagging wits with a jest or a racy anecdote. Now and then Douglas would take up a pen good-naturedly, and scratch off an editorial which would set Springfield politicians by the ears. The tone of the Republican, as indeed of the Western press generally at this time, was low. Editors of rival newspapers heaped abuse upon each other, without much regard to either truth or decency. Feuds were the inevitable product of these editorial amenities.
On one occasion, the Republican charged the commissioners appointed to supervise the building of the new State House in Springfield, with misuse of the public funds. The commissioners made an apparently straightforward defense of their expenditures. The Republican doubted the statement and reiterated the charge in scurrilous language. Then the aggrieved commissioners, accompanied by their equally exasperated friends, descended upon the office of the Republican to take summary vengeance. It so happened that Douglas was at the moment comfortably ensconced in the editorial sanctum. He could hardly do otherwise than assist in the defense; indeed, it is more than likely that he had provoked the assault. In the disgraceful brawl that followed, the attacking party was beaten off with heavy losses. Sheriff Elkins, who seems to have been acting in an unofficial capacity as a friend of the commissioners, was stabbed, though not fatally, by one of the Weber brothers.
From such unedifying episodes in the career of a rising politician, public attention was diverted by the excitement of a State election. Since the abortive attempts to commit the Democratic party to the convention system in 1835, party opinion had grown more favorable to the innovation. Rumors that the Whigs were about to unite upon a State ticket doubtless hastened the conversion of many Democrats. When the legislature met for a special session in July, the leading spirits in the reform movement held frequent consultations, the outcome of which was a call for a Democratic State convention in December. Every county was invited to send delegates. A State committee of fifteen was appointed, and each county was urged to form a similar committee. Another committee was also created—the Committee of Thirty—to prepare an address to the voters. Fifth on this latter committee was the name of S.A. Douglas of Sangamon. The machinery of the party was thus created out of hand by a group of unauthorized leaders. They awaited the reaction of the insoluble elements in the party, with some anxiety.
The new organization had no more vigilant defender than Douglas. From his coign of vantage in the Land Office, he watched the trend of opinion within the party, not forgetting to observe at the same time the movements of the Whigs. There were certain phrases in the "Address to the Democratic Republicans of Illinois" which may have been coined in his mint. The statement that "the Democratic Republicans of Illinois propose to bring theirs [their candidates] forward by the full and consentaneous voice of every member of their political association," has a familiar, full-mouthed quality. The Democrats of Sangamon called upon him to defend the caucus at a mass-meeting; and when they had heard his eloquent exposition of the new System, they resolved with great gravity that it offered "the only safe and proper way of securing union and victory." There is something amusing in the confident air of this political expert aged twenty-four; yet there is no disputing the fact that his words carried weight with men of far wider experience than his own.
Before many weeks of the campaign had passed, Douglas had ceased to be merely a consultative specialist on party ailments. Not at all unwillingly, he was drawn into active service. It was commonly supposed that the Honorable William L. May, who had served a term in Congress acceptably, would again become the nominee of the Democratic party without opposition. If the old-time practice prevailed, he would quietly assume the nomination "at the request of many friends." Still, consistency required that the nomination should be made in due form by a convention. The Springfield Republican clamored for a convention; and the Jacksonville News echoed the cry. Other Democratic papers took up the cry, until by general agreement a congressional district convention was summoned to meet at Peoria. The Jacksonville News was then ready with a list of eligible candidates among whom Douglas was mentioned. At the same time the enterprising Brooks announced "authoritatively" that if Mr. May concluded to become a candidate, he would submit his claims to the consideration of the convention. This was the first intimation that the gentleman's claims were likely to be contested in the convention. Meantime, good friends in Sangamon County saw to it that the county delegation was made up of men who were favorably disposed toward Douglas, and bound them by instructions to act as a unit in the convention.
The history of the district convention has never been written: it needs no historian. Under the circumstances the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Not all the counties were represented; some were poorly represented; most of the delegates came without any clearly defined aims; all were unfamiliar with the procedure of conventions. The Sangamon County delegation alone, with the possible exception of that from Morgan County, knew exactly what it wanted. When a ballot was taken, Douglas received a majority of votes cast, and was declared to be the regular nominee of the party for Congress.
There was much shaking of heads over this machine-made nomination. An experienced public servant had been set aside to gratify the ambition of a mere stripling. Even Democrats commented freely upon the untrustworthiness of a device which left nominations to the caprice of forty delegates representing only fourteen counties out of thirty-five. The Whigs made merry over the folly of their opponents. "No nomination could suit us better," declared the Sangamo Journal.
The Democratic State convention met at the appointed time, and again new methods prevailed. In spite of strong opposition, a slate was made up and proclaimed as the regular ticket of the party. Unhappily, the nominee for governor fell under suspicion as an alleged defaulter to the government, so that his deposition became imperative. The Democrats were in a sorry plight. Defeat stared them in the face. There was but one way to save the situation, and that was to call a second convention. This was done. On June 5th, a new ticket was put in the field, without further mention of the discredited nominee of the earlier convention. It so happened that Carlin, the nominee for Governor, and McRoberts, candidate for Congress from the first district, were receivers in land offices. This "Land Office Ticket" became a fair mark for wags in the Whig party.
In after years, Douglas made his friends believe that he accepted the nomination with no expectation of success: his only purpose was to "consolidate the party." If this be true, his buoyant optimism throughout the canvass is admirable. He was pitted against a formidable opponent in the person of Major John T. Stuart, who had been the candidate of the Whigs two years before. Stuart enjoyed great popularity. He was "an old resident" of Springfield,—as Western people then reckoned time. He had earned his title in the Black Hawk War, since which he had practiced law. For the arduous campaign, which would range over thirty-four counties,—from Calhoun, Morgan and Sangamon on the south to Cook County on the north,—Stuart was physically well-equipped.
Douglas was eager to match himself against Stuart. They started off together, in friendly rivalry. As they rode from town to town over much the same route, they often met in joint debate; and at night, striking a truce, they would on occasion, when inns were few and far between, occupy the same quarters. Accommodations were primitive in the wilderness of the northern counties. An old resident relates how he was awakened one night by the landlord of the tavern, who insisted that he and his companion should share their beds with two belated travelers. The late arrivals turned out to be Douglas and Stuart. Douglas asked the occupants of the beds what their politics were, and on learning that one was a Whig and the other a Democrat, he said to Stuart, "Stuart, you sleep with the Whig, and I'll sleep with the Democrat."
Douglas never seemed conscious of the amusing discrepancy between himself and his rival in point of physique. Stuart was fully six feet tall and heavily built, so that he towered like a giant above his boyish competitor. Yet strange to relate, the exposure to all kinds of weather, the long rides, and the incessant speaking in the open air through five weary months, told on the robust Stuart quite as much as on Douglas. In the midst of the canvass Douglas found his way to Chicago. He must have been a forlorn object. His horse, his clothes, his boots, and his hat were worn out. His harness was held together only by ropes and strings. Yet he was still plucky. And so his friends fitted him out again and sent him on his way rejoicing.
The rivals began the canvass good-naturedly, but both gave evidence of increasing irritability as the summer wore on. Shortly before the election, they met in joint debate at Springfield, in front of the Market House. In the course of his speech, Douglas used language that offended his big opponent. Stuart then promptly tucked Douglas's head under his arm, and carried him hors de combat around the square. In his efforts to free himself, Douglas seized Stuart's thumb in his mouth and bit it vigorously, so that Stuart carried a scar, as a memento of the occasion, for many a year.
As the canvass advanced, the assurance of the Whigs gave way to ill-disguised alarm. Disquieting rumors of Douglas's popularity among some two thousand Irishmen, who were employed on the canal excavation, reached the Whig headquarters. The young man was assiduously cultivating voters in the most inaccessible quarters. He was a far more resourceful campaigner than his older rival.
The election in August was followed by weeks of suspense. Both parties claimed the district vociferously. The official count finally gave the election to Stuart by a majority of thirty-five, in a total vote of over thirty-six thousand. Possibly Douglas might have successfully contested the election. There were certain discrepancies in the counting of the votes; but he declined to vex Congress with the question, so he said, because similar cases were pending and he could not hope to secure a decision before Congress adjourned. It is doubtful whether this merciful consideration for Congress was uppermost in his mind in the year 1838. The fact is, that Douglas wrote to Senator Thomas H. Benton to ascertain the proper procedure in such cases; and abandoned the notion of carrying his case before Congress, when he learned how costly such a contest would be. He had resigned his position as Register of the Land Office to enter the campaign, and he had now no other resources than his profession.
It was comforting to the wounded pride of the young man to have the plaudits of his own party, at least. He had made a gallant fight; and when Democrats from all over the State met at a dinner in honor of Governor-elect Carlin, at Quincy, they paid him this generous tribute: "Although so far defeated in the election that the certificate will be given to another, yet he has the proud gratification of knowing that the people are with him. His untiring zeal, his firm integrity, and high order of talents, have endeared him to the Democracy of the State and they will remember him two years hence." Meantime there was nothing left for him to do but to solicit a law practice. He entered into partnership with a Springfield attorney by the name of Urquhart.
By the following spring, Douglas was again dabbling in local politics, and by late fall he was fully immersed in the deeper waters of national politics. Preparations for the presidential campaign drew him out of his law office,—where indeed there was nothing to detain him,—and he was once again active in party conclaves. He presided over a Democratic county convention, and lent a hand in the drafting of a platform. In November he was summoned to answer Cyrus Walker, a Whig who was making havoc of the Democratic programme at a mass-meeting in the Court House. In the absence of any reliable records, nothing more can be said of Douglas's rejoinder than that it moved the Whigs in turn to summon reinforcements, in the person of the awkward but clever Lincoln. The debate was prolonged far into the night; and on which side victory finally folded her wings, no man can tell. Douglas made the stronger impression, though Whigs professed entire satisfaction with the performance of their protagonist. There were some in the audience who took exception to Lincoln's stale anecdotes, and who thought his manner clownish.
Not long after this encounter, Douglas came in for his share of public ridicule. Considering himself insulted by a squib in the Sangamo Journal, Douglas undertook to cane the editor. But as Francis was large and rotund, and Douglas was not, the affair terminated unsatisfactorily for the latter. Lincoln described the incident with great relish, in a letter to Stuart: "Francis caught him by the hair and jammed him back against a market-cart, where the matter ended by Francis being pulled away from him. The whole affair was so ludicrous that Francis and everybody else, Douglas excepted, have been laughing about it ever since." The Illinois State Register tried to save Douglas's dignity by the following account of the rencontre: "Mr. Francis had applied scurrilous language to Mr. Douglas, which could be noticed in no other way. Mr. Douglas, therefore, gave him a sound caning, which Mr. Francis took with Abolition patience, and is now praising God that he was neither killed nor scathed."
The executive talents of Douglas were much in demand. First he was made a member of the Sangamon County delegation to the State convention; then chairman of the State Central Committee; and finally, virtual manager of the Democratic campaign in Illinois. He was urged to stand for election to the legislature; but he steadily refused this nomination. "Considerations of a private nature," he wrote, "constrain me to decline the nomination, and leave the field to those whose avocations and private affairs will enable them to devote the requisite portion of their time to the canvass." Inasmuch as Sangamon County usually sent a Whig delegation to the legislature, this declination could hardly have cost him many hours of painful deliberation. At all events his avocations did not prevent him from making every effort to carry the State for the Democratic party.
An unfortunate legal complication had cost the Democrats no end of worry. Hitherto the party had counted safely on the vote of the aliens in the State; that is, actual inhabitants whether naturalized or not. The right of unnaturalized aliens to vote had never been called in question. But during the campaign, two Whigs of Galena instituted a collusive suit to test the rights of aliens, hoping, of course, to embarrass their opponents. The Circuit Court had already decided the case adversely, when Douglas assumed direction of the campaign. If the decision were allowed to stand, the Democratic ticket would probably lose some nine thousand votes and consequently the election. The case was at once appealed. Douglas and his old friend and benefactor, Murray McConnell, were retained as counsel for the appellant. The opposing counsel were Whigs. The case was argued in the winter term of the Supreme Court, but was adjourned until the following June, a scant six months before the elections.
It was regrettable that a case, which from its very nature was complicated by political considerations, should have arisen in the midst of a campaign of such unprecedented excitement as that of 1840. It was taken for granted, on all sides, that the judges would follow their political predilections—and what had Democrats to expect from a bench of Whigs? The counsel for the appellant strained every nerve to secure another postponement. Fortune favored the Democrats. When the court met in June, Douglas, prompted by Judge Smith, the only Democrat on the bench, called attention to clerical errors in the record, and on this technicality moved that the case be dismissed. Protracted arguments pro and con ensued, so that the whole case finally was adjourned until the next term of court in November, after the election. Once more, at all events, the Democrats could count on the alien vote. Did ever lawyer serve politician so well?
As Chairman of the State Central Committee, Douglas had no perfunctory position. The Whigs were displaying unusual aggressiveness. Their leaders were adroit politicians and had taken a leaf from Democratic experience in the matter of party organization. The processions, the torch-light parades, the barbecues and other noisy demonstrations of the Whigs, were very disconcerting. Such performances could not be lightly dismissed as "Whig Humbuggery," for they were alarmingly effective in winning votes. In self-defense, the Democratic managers were obliged to set on foot counter-demonstrations. On the whole, the Democrats were less successful in manufacturing enthusiasm. When one convention of young Democrats failed, for want of support, Douglas saved the situation only by explaining that hard-working Democrats could not leave their employment to go gadding. They preferred to leave noise and sham to their opponents, knowing that in the end "the quiet but certain influence of truth and correct principles" would prevail. And when the Whigs unwittingly held a great demonstration for "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," on the birthday of King George III, Douglas saw to it that an address was issued to voters, warning them against the chicane of unpatriotic demagogues. As a counter-blast, "All Good Democrats" were summoned to hold mass-meetings in the several counties on the Fourth of July. "We select the Fourth of July," read this pronunciamento, "not to desecrate it with unhallowed shouts ... but in cool and calm devotion to our country, to renew upon the altars of its liberties, a sacred oath of fidelity to its principles."
Both parties now drew upon their reserves. Douglas went to the front whenever and wherever there was hard fighting to be done. He seemed indefatigable. Once again he met Major Stuart on the platform. He was pitted against experienced campaigners like ex-Governor Duncan and General Ewing of Indiana. Douglas made a fearless defence of Democratic principles in a joint debate with both these Whig champions at Springfield. The discussion continued far into the night. In his anxiety to let no point escape, Douglas had his supper brought to him; and it is the testimony of an old Whig who heard the debate, that Duncan was "the worst used-up man" he ever saw. Whether Douglas took the field as on this occasion, or directed the campaign from headquarters, he was cool, collected, and resourceful. If the sobriquet of "the Little Giant" had not already been fastened upon him, it was surely earned in this memorable campaign of 1840. The victory of Van Buren over Harrison in Illinois was little less than a personal triumph for Douglas, for Democratic reverses elsewhere emphasized the already conspicuous fact that Illinois had been saved only by superior organization and leadership.
* * * * *
[Footnote 36: Joseph Wallace in a letter to the Illinois State Register, April 30, 1899.]
[Footnote 37: Illinois State Register, April 30, 1899.]
[Footnote 38: Sheahan, Life of Douglas, pp. 16-17.]
[Footnote 39: Sheahan's account of this incident (pp. 18-20) is confused. The episode is told very differently in the MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 40: MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 41: In the Autobiography, Douglas makes a vigorous defense of his connection with the whole affair.]
[Footnote 42: Just when he dropped the final s, I am unable to say. Joseph Wallace thinks that he did so soon after coming to Illinois. See Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1901, p. 114.]
[Footnote 43: Joseph Wallace in the Illinois State Register, April 30, 1899.]
[Footnote 44: Douglas tells the story with great relish in his autobiography. The title of the act reads "An Act creating M'Lean County," but the body of the act gives the name as McLean. Douglas had used the exact letters of the name, though he had twisted the capital letters, writing a capital C for a capital L.]
[Footnote 45: Ford, History of Illinois, pp. 285-286; see contemporary newspapers.]
[Footnote 46: Illinois Advocate, May 4, 1835.]
[Footnote 47: Ibid., May 6, 1835.]
[Footnote 48: Illinois Advocate, Dec. 17, 1835; Sangamo Journal, Feb. 6, 1836.]
[Footnote 49: Sangamo Journal, February 6, 1836.]
[Footnote 50: There was one exception, see Sheahan, Douglas, p. 26.]
[Footnote 51: Sheahan, Douglas, p. 26; Wheeler, Biographical History, p. 67; Sangamo Journal, May 7, 1836.]
[Footnote 52: Sangamo Journal, May 7, 1836.]
[Footnote 53: Ibid.]
[Footnote 54: Ibid., May 14, 1836.]
[Footnote 55: Ibid.]
[Footnote 56: Ford, History of Illinois, pp. 103-105.]
[Footnote 57: See letter of "M—" in the Illinois State Register, July 29, 1836.]
[Footnote 58: Illinois State Register, October 28, 1836.]
[Footnote 59: Ibid., December 8, 1836.]
[Footnote 60: Sheahan, Douglas, p. 29; MS. Autobiography.]
[Footnote 61: Act of February 27, 1837.]
[Footnote 62: In his Autobiography Douglas says that the friends of the bill persuaded his constituents to instruct him to vote for the bill; hence his affirmative vote was the vote of his constituents.]
[Footnote 63: Douglas was in good company at all events. Abraham Lincoln was one of those who voted for the bill.]
[Footnote 64: See Davidson and Stuve, History of Illinois, Chapter 40; Wheeler, Biographical History, pp. 68-70; Sheahan, Douglas, pp. 32-33.]
[Footnote 65: But it was no worse than the English custom before the Act of 1857.]
[Footnote 66: House Journal, p. 62.]
[Footnote 67: The assembly substituted the word "inexpedient" for "unconstitutional," in the resolution submitted by Douglas. House Journal, p. 62.]
[Footnote 68: Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, I, pp. 137-138.]
[Footnote 69: Ibid., p. 139.]
[Footnote 70: Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1901, p. 111.]
[Footnote 71: Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1901, pp. 111-112. The Sangamo Journal, August 5, 1837, says that Douglas owed his appointment to the efforts of Senator Young in his behalf.]
[Footnote 72: Sangamo Journal, August 29, 1837.]
[Footnote 73: Douglas describes his duties in Cutts, Const. and Party Questions, pp. 160 ff.]
[Footnote 74: Conversation with Charles A. Keyes, Esq., of Springfield, and with Dr. A.W. French, also of Springfield, Illinois.]
[Footnote 75: Sangamo Journal, July 1, 1837. The newspaper accounts of this affair are confusing; but they are in substantial agreement as to the causes and outcome of the attack upon the office of the Republican.]
[Footnote 76: Illinois State Register, July 22, 1837.]
[Footnote 77: Illinois State Register, July 22, 1837.]
[Footnote 78: Ibid., November 4, 1837.]
[Footnote 79: Ibid., October 27, 1837.]
[Footnote 80: Illinois State Register, October 13, 1837.]
[Footnote 81: Jacksonville News, quoted by Illinois State Register, Oct. 13, 1837.]
[Footnote 82: Illinois State Register, October 27, 1837.]
[Footnote 83: Illinois State Register, December 9, 1837; Sangamo Journal, November 25, 1837.]
[Footnote 84: Sangamo Journal, November 25, 1837; but see also Peoria Register, November 25, 1837.]
[Footnote 85: Ibid.]
[Footnote 86: See Illinois State Register, May 11, 1838.]
[Footnote 87: Illinois State Register, June 8, 1838.]
[Footnote 88: Sangamo Journal, July 21, 1838.]
[Footnote 89: Wheeler, Biographical History of Congress I, pp. 72-73; Sheahan, Douglas, p. 36.]
[Footnote 90: Sheahan, Douglas, pp. 36-37; Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1902, pp. 109 ff; Peoria Register, May 19, 1838.]
[Footnote 91: Palmer, Personal Recollections, p. 24.]
[Footnote 92: Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men, II, p. 180.]
[Footnote 93: Transactions of the Illinois Historical Society, 1902, p. 110.]
[Footnote 94: Sangamo Journal, August 25, 1838; Peoria Register, August 11, 1838.]
[Footnote 95: Election returns in the Office of the Secretary of State.]
[Footnote 96: See Sheahan, Douglas, p. 37; also Illinois State Register, October 12, 1838.]
[Footnote 97: MS. Letter, Benton to Douglas, October 27, 1838.]
[Footnote 98: For correspondence between Douglas and Stuart, see Illinois State Register, April 5, 1839.]
[Footnote 99: Illinois State Register, October 26, 1838.]
[Footnote 100: Ibid., April 5, 1839.]
[Footnote 101: Illinois State Register, November 23, 1839.]
[Footnote 102: Ibid.]
[Footnote 103: Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, I, p. 181.]
[Footnote 104: Illinois State Register, November 23, 1839.]
[Footnote 105: Ibid., February 21, 1840.]
[Footnote 106: Ibid., April 24, 1840.]
[Footnote 107: See Illinois State Register, August 7, 1840.]
[Footnote 108: The Constitution of 1819 bestowed the suffrage upon every white male "inhabitant" twenty-one years of age.]
[Footnote 109: Sheahan, Douglas, pp. 44-45.]
[Footnote 110: The title of the case was Thomas Spraggins, appellant vs. Horace H. Houghton, appellee.]
[Footnote 111: Sheahan, Douglas, pp. 45-46; Wheeler, Biographical History of Congress, p. 76.]
[Footnote 112: Illinois State Register, May 15, 1840.]
[Footnote 113: Ibid., June 12, 1840.]
[Footnote 114: Illinois State Register, July 10, 1840; Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men, II, p. 180.]
[Footnote 115: Ibid., September 4, 1840.]
[Footnote 116: Ibid., October 2, 1840.]
[Footnote 117: Letter of J.H. Roberts, Esq., of Chicago, to the writer; see also Illinois State Register, October 2, 1840.]
LAW AND POLITICS
The years were passing rapidly during which Douglas should have laid broad and deep the foundations of his professional career, if indeed law was to be more than a convenient avocation. These were formative years in the young man's life; but as yet he had developed neither the inclination nor the capacity to apply himself to the study of the more intricate and abstruse phases of jurisprudence. To be sure, he had picked up much practical information in the courts, but it was not of the sort which makes great jurists. Besides, his law practice had been, and was always destined to be, the handmaid of his political ambition. In such a school, a naturally ardent, impulsive temperament does not acquire judicial poise and gravity. After all, he was only a soldier of political fortune, awaiting his turn for promotion. A reversal in the fortunes of his party might leave him without hope of preferment, and bind him to a profession which is a jealous mistress, and to which he had been none too constant. Happily, his party was now in power, and he was entitled to first consideration in the distribution of the spoils. Under somewhat exceptional circumstances the office of Secretary of State fell vacant in the autumn of 1840, and the chairman of the Democratic Central Committee entered into his reward.
When Governor Carlin took office in 1838, he sent to the Senate the nomination of John A. McClernand as Secretary of State, assuming that the office had been vacated and that a new Governor might choose his advisers. Precedent, it is true, militated against this theory, for Secretary Field had held office under three successive governors; but now that parties had become more sharply defined, it was deemed important that the Secretary of State should be of the same political persuasion as the Governor,—and Field was a Whig. The Senate refused to indorse this new theory. Whereupon the Governor waited until the legislature adjourned, and renewed his appointment of McClernand, who promptly brought action against the tenacious Field to obtain possession of the office. The case was argued in the Circuit Court before Judge Breese, who gave a decision in favor of McClernand. The case was then appealed. Among the legal talent arrayed on the side of the claimant, when the case appeared on the docket of the Supreme Court, was Douglas—as a matter of course. Everyone knew that this was not so much a case at law as an issue in politics. The decision of the Supreme Court reversing the judgment of the lower court was received, therefore, as a partisan move to protect a Whig office-holder.
For a time the Democrats, in control elsewhere, found themselves obliged to tolerate a dissident in their political family; but the Democratic majority in the new legislature came promptly to the aid of the Governor's household. Measures were set on foot to terminate Secretary Field's tenure of office by legislative enactment. Just at this juncture that gentleman prudently resigned; and Stephen A. Douglas was appointed to the office which he had done his best to vacate.