HAMILTON and Jefferson, Clay and Jackson, Douglas and Lincoln,—these have been the three great rivalries of American politics. The third was not the least. If it fell short of the others in variety of confrontments; if it was not so long drawn out, or accompanied with so frequent and imposing alignments and realignments of vast contending forces on a broad and national field, it surpassed them in the clearness of the sole and vital issue it involved, in a closer contact and measuring of powers, in the complete and subtle correspondence of the characters of the rivals to the causes for which they fought.
In March, 1834, Stephen Arnold Douglas, an unknown youth from Vermont, poor, delicate, almost diminutive in physical stature, and not yet of age, was admitted to the bar of Illinois, and opened an office at Jacksonville, in the county of Morgan. From that day he rose faster than any other man in the state, if not in the whole country, notwithstanding that he rose on the lines along which many and many a young American was struggling toward eminence, and notwithstanding that Illinois was full, as later years were to prove, of young men exceptionally fit for such careers as he was seeking.
Within a month he had got the leadership of the Democrats of his neighborhood and county. At twenty-one he was public prosecutor, or district attorney, of the judicial district,—an office which at twenty-three he resigned in order to enter the legislature. At twenty-four he was register of public lands at Springfield. At twenty-five he was his party's candidate for Congress in a Whig district, the largest in the country, and was beaten by five votes in a total poll of more than 36,000. At twenty-seven, after serving a few weeks as secretary of state, he was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois. At thirty he was in the lower house of Congress. At thirty-three he took the seat in the Senate which he held until he died. From 1848, when he was thirty-five until 1860, when he was nominated, his name was presented to every Democratic National Convention as a candidate for the presidency.
When he was elected to the him legislature, Abraham Lincoln, a Whig representative from Sangamon County, was already well known for his ungainly length of body, for his habit of reasoning in parables which were now Scriptural and now vulgar to the point of obscenity, and for a quaint and rare honesty. He was four years older than the new member from Morgan, and nearly two feet taller. Douglas, many years later, declared that he was drawn to Lincoln by a strong sympathy, for were both young men making an uphill struggle in life. Lincoln, at his first sight of Douglas, during his canvass for the attorneyship, pronounced him "the least man he ever saw."
When Douglas, as register of public lands, went to live at Springfield, which was just become the capital, he found Shields, McClernand, Lincoln, and other rising young men already gathered there; and thereafter he and Lincoln knew each other well, for they lived together several years in an atmosphere of intimate personal scrutiny. For searching study of one's fellows, for utter disregard of superficial criteria of character and conventional standards of conduct, there is but one sort of life to be compared with the life of a Southern or Western town, and that is the life of students in a boarding school or a small college. In such communities there is little division into classes, as of rich and poor, educated and illiterate, well and obscurely born. On the steps of the courthouse, in the post office while the daily mail is sorted, in the corner drug store on Sundays, in lawyers offices, on the curbstone,—wherever a group of men is assembled,—there is the freest talk on every conceivable subject; and the lives of men are open to their fellows as they cannot be in cities by reason of the mass, or in country districts by reason of the solitude, and the shyness which solitude breeds. Against Douglas there was the presumption, which every New England man who goes southward or westward has to live down, that he would in some measure hold himself aloof from his fellows; but the prejudice was quickly dispelled. No man entered more readily into close personal relations with whomsoever he encountered. In all our accounts of him he is represented as surrounded with intimates. Not without the power of impressing men with his dignity and seriousness of purpose, we nevertheless hear of him sitting on the knee of an eminent judge during a recess of the court; dancing from end to end of a dinner table with the volatile Shields,—the same who won laurels in the Mexican War, a seat in the United States Senate, and the closest approach anybody ever won to victory in battle over Stonewall Jackson; and engaging, despite his height of scarce five feet and his weight of a hundred pounds, in personal encounters with Stuart, Lincoln's athletic law partner, and a corpulent attorney named Francis.
On equal terms he mingled in good humored rivalry with a group of uncommonly resourceful men, and he passed them all in the race for advancement. Buoyant, good-natured, never easily abashed, his maturity and savoir-faire were accentuated by the smallness of his stature. His blue eyes and dark, abundant hair heightened he physical charm of boyishness; his virile movements, his face, heavy-browed, round, and strong, his firm, rich voice, and his well-formed, extraordinarily large head gave him an aspect of intellectual power. He had a truly Napoleonic trick of attaching men to his fortunes. He was a born leader, beyond question; and he himself does not seem ever to have doubted his fitness to lead, or ever to have agonized over the choices of a path and the responsibilities of leadership. There is some reason to believe that Lincoln, strange as it seems, was successful as his rival in a love affair, but otherwise he left Lincoln far behind.
Twenty years later, in 1858, when he went back to Illinois to take the stump in his campaign for re-election to the Senate, he was by far the most conspicuous figure in American public life. He had been for some years the most active and the most brilliant man in Congress, and he was the leader of his party as Clay had been the leader of the Whigs. He had given it a policy on the uppermost question of the day,—the question of slavery in the territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which threw open to slavery the vast region consecrated to freedom by the Compromise of 1820, was entirely his work. He had written it of his own motion, by himself, in his own house, and, as he truly declared, he had passed it himself. "I had," he said afterwards, "the authority and power of a dictator throughout the controversy in both houses." The famous measure had altered the whole face of American politics. The Democrats had adopted the principle of it—the principle which Douglas called "popular sovereignty," and which its opponents nicknamed "squatter sovereignty"—in their platform of 1856. It made the South so solidly Democratic that for a time all semblance of opposition disappeared in that quarter. In the North it summoned the Republican party into life.