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.
From motives of expediency the Democrats chose Buchanan, and not Douglas, to be their candidate in 1856; but he was no sooner in office than, in his subserviency to the Southerners, he took a course with Kansas in which Douglas would not follow him. The administration tried to force upon the Kansans the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, and Douglas, with a handful of followers in Congress, joined the Republicans, and defeated the daring last attempt to bring Kansas into the Union as a slave state, contrary to the will of the great majority of her people. He went home a victor in that stirring parliamentary contest, and Chicago, which in 1854 had hooted and hissed and stoned him into silence when he tried to defend the Kansas-Nebraska Act, now welcomed him uproariously. The whole North, in fact, which had but a little while before reviled him and burnt him in effigy, was now beginning to praise him. Horace Greeley and other important persons were even suggesting that he might after all prove to be the very man to lead the new party to victory on a more moderate platform. But there awaited him in Illinois treason in the ranks of his own party,—for the administration, beaten in Congress, attacked him at home,—and an opposition now completely formed and led by the man whom Douglas himself in his own heart dreaded as he had never dreaded the ablest of his rivals at Washington. The Republicans had taken the unusual course of holding a convention to nominate their candidate for the Senate, and the candidate was Lincoln.
Douglas was the very type of that instant success which waits on ability undistracted by doubt and undeterred by the fear of doing wrong,—the best exemplar of that American statesmanship which accepts things as they are and makes the most of them. Facile, keen, effective, he had found life a series of opportunities easily embraced. Precocious in youth, marvelously active in manhood, he had learned without study, resolved without meditation, accomplished without toil. Whatever obstacles he had found in his path, he had either adroitly avoided them or boldly overleaped them, but never laboriously uprooted them. Whatever subject he had taken in hand, he had swiftly compassed it, but rarely probed to the heart of it. With books he dealt as he dealt with men, getting from them quickly what he liked or needed; he was as unlikely to pore over a volume, and dog-ear and annotate it, as he was with correspondence and slow talk and silences to draw out a friendship. Yet he was not cold or mean, but capable of hero worship, following with ardor the careers of great conquerors like Caesar and Napoleon, and capable, too, of loyalty to party and to men. He had great personal magnetism: young men, especially, he charmed and held as no other public man could, now Clay was dead. His habits were convivial, and the vicious indulgence of his strong and masculine appetites, the only relaxation he craved in the intervals of his fierce activities, had caused him frequent illness; but he was still a young man, even by American standards, for the eminence he had attained. At the full of his extraordinary powers, battling for the high place he had and the higher he aspired to, there was nowhere to be seen his equal as a debater or a politician,—nowhere but in the ungainly figure, now once more erected into a posture of rivalry and defiance, of the man whom he had long ago outstripped and left behind him in the home of their common beginnings.
Slower of growth, and devoid altogether of the many brilliant qualities which his rival possessed, Lincoln nevertheless outreached him by the measure of two gifts which Douglas lacked,—the twin gifts of humor and of brooding melancholy. Bottomed by the one in homeliness, his character was by the other drawn upward to the height of human nobility and aspiration. His great capacity for pain, which but for his buffoonery would no doubt have made him mad, was the source of his rarest excellencies. Familiar with squalor and hospitable to vulgarity, his mind was yet tenanted by sorrow, a place of midnight wrestlings. In him, as never before in any other man, were high and low things mated, and awkwardness and ungainliness and uncouthness justified in their uses. At once coarser than his rival and infinitely more refined and gentle, he had mastered lessons which the other had never found the need of learning, or else had learned too readily and then dismissed. He had thoroughness for the other's competence; insight into human nature and a vast sympathy for the others' facile handling of men; a deep devotion to the right for the other's loyalty to party platforms. The very core of his nature was truth, and he himself is reported to have said of Douglas that he cared less for the truth, than any other man he knew.
Hanging for some years upon the heels of his rival's rapid ascent, Lincoln had entered the House as Douglas left it for the Senate; but at the end of the term he retired from politics, baffled and discouraged. Tortured with the keen apprehension of a form and grace into which he could never mould his crudeness, tantalized with a sense that there must be a way for him to get a hold upon his fellows and snake a figure in the history of his times, he had watched the power of Douglas grow and the fame of Douglas spread, until it seemed that the voice of Douglas was always speaking, the hand of Douglas everywhere. Patiently working out the right and wrong of the fateful question Douglas dealt with so boldly, he came into the impregnable position of such as hated slavery and yet forbore to violate its sanctuary. Suddenly, with the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, Douglas himself had opened a path for him. He went back into politics, and took a leading part in the Anti-Nebraska movement. Whenever opportunity offered, he combated Douglas on the stump. The year Trumbull won the senatorship Lincoln had first come within a few votes of it. Risen now to the leadership of the Republicans in Illinois, he awaited Douglas at Chicago, listened to his opening speech, answered it the next evening, followed him into the centre of the state, and finally proposed a series of joint debates before the people. Douglas hesitated, but accepted, and named seven meeting places: Ottawa and Freeport, in the northern stronghold of the Republicans; Galesburg, Quincy, and Charleston, in a region where both parties had a good following; and Jonesboro and Alton, which were in "Egypt." The first meeting was at Ottawa, in August; the last at Alton, in the middle of October. Meanwhile, both spoke incessantly at other places,—Douglas oftener than once a day. First the fame of Douglas and then Lincoln's unexpected survival of the early meetings drew the eyes of the whole country upon these two foremost Americans of their generation, face to face there on the Western prairie, fighting out the great question of the times.
Elevated side by side on wooden platforms in the open air, thrown into relief against the low prairie skyline, the two figures take strong hold upon the imagination: the one lean, long-limbed, uncommonly tall; the other scarce five feet high, but compact, manful, instinct with energy, and topped with its massive head. In voice and gesture and manner Douglas was incomparably the superior, as he was, too, in the ready command of a language never, indeed, ornate or imaginative, and sometimes of the quality of political commonplace, but always forcible and always intelligible to his audience. Lincoln had the sense of words, the imagination, the intensity of feeling, which go to the making of great literature; but for his masterpieces he always needed time. His voice was high and strained, his gestures ungraceful, his manner painful, save in the recital of those passages which he had carefully prepared or when he was freed of his selfconsciousness by anger or enthusiasm. Neither of them, in any single speech, could be compared to Webster in the other of the two most famous American debates, but the series was a remarkable exhibition of forensic power. The interest grew as the struggle lengthened. People traveled great distances to hear them. At every meeting place, a multitude of farmers and dwellers in country towns, with here and there a sprinkling of city folk, crowded about the stand where "Old Abe" and the "Little Giant" turned and twisted and fenced for an opening, grappled and drew apart, clinched and strained and staggered; but neither fell. The wonder grew that Lincoln stood up so well under the onslaughts of Douglas, at once skillful and reckless, held him off with so firm hand, gripped him so shrewdly. Now the wonder is that Douglas, wrestling with the man and the cause of a century, kept his feet and held to his own.
He was fighting, too, with an enemy in the rear: when he turned to strike at the administration, Lincoln would call out: "Go it, husband! Go it, bear!" Apart from that diversion, however, the debate, long and involved as it was, followed but three general lines. The whole is resolvable into three elements,—personalities, politics, and principles. There were the attacks which each made upon the other's record, the efforts which each made to weaken the other's position before the people, and the contrary views which were advanced.
Douglas began, indeed, with gracious compliments to his opponent, calling him "an amiable, kindly, and intelligent gentleman." Lincoln, unused to praise from such a source, protested he was like the Hoosier with the gingerbread: "He reckoned he liked it better than any other man, and got less of it." But in a moment Douglas was charging that Lincoln and Trumbull, Whig and Democrat, had made a coalition in 1854 to form the Black Republican party and get for themselves the two senatorships from Illinois, and that Trumbull had broken faith with Lincoln. Lincoln in turn made a charge that Douglas had conspired with Presidents Pierce and Buchanan and Chief Justice Taney to spread slavery and make it universal. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was their first step, the Dred Scott decision the second; but one more step, and slavery could be fastened upon states as they had already fastened it upon territories. Douglas protesting that to bring such a charge, incapable of proof or disproof, was indecent, Lincoln pointed out that Douglas had similarly taxed the administration with conspiring to force a slave constitution upon Kansas; and afterwards took up a charge of Trumbull's, that Douglas himself had at first conspired with Toombs and other Senators to prevent any reference to the people of whatsoever constitution the Kansas convention might adopt. When they moved southward, Douglas charged Lincoln with inconsistency in that he changed his stand to suit the leanings of different communities. Of all these charges and countercharges, however, none was absolutely proved, and no one now believes those which Douglas brought; but he made them serve. And Lincoln's, though he sustained them with far better evidence, and pressed them home with a wonderful, clearness of reasoning,—once he actually threw his argument into a syllogism,—did no great harm to Douglas.
It was Douglas, too, who began the sparring for a political advantage. He knew that Lincoln's following was heterogeneous. "Their principles," he jeered, "in the north are jet black, in the centre they are in color a decent mulatto, and in lower Egypt they are almost white." His aim, therefore was fix upon Lincoln such extreme views as would alarm the more moderate of his followers, since the extremists must take him, perforce, as a choice of two evils, even though he fell far short of their radical standard. To this end, Douglas produced certain resolutions which purported to have been adopted by an Anti-Nebraska convention at Springfield in 1854, and would have held Lincoln responsible for them. In a series questions, he asked if Lincoln were still opposed to a fugitive slave law, to the admission of any more slave states, and to acquiring any more territory unless the Wilmot Proviso were applied to it, and if he were still for prohibiting slavery outright in all the territories and in the District of Columbia, and for prohibiting the interstate slave trade. It soon transpired that Lincoln was not present at the Springfield convention, and that the resolutions were not adopted there, but somewhere else, and Douglas had to defend himself against a charge of misrepresentation. Nevertheless, when they met the second time at Freeport, Lincoln answered the questions. He admitted the right of the South to a fugitive slave law. He would favor abolition in the District only if it were gradual, compensated, and accomplished with the consent of the inhabitants. He was not sure of the right of Congress to prohibit the interstate slave trade. He would oppose the annexation of fresh territory if he thought it would tend to aggravate the slavery controversy. He could see no way to deny the people of a territory, if slavery were prohibited among them during their territorial life, and they nevertheless asked to come into the Union as a slave state. These mild and cautious answers displeased the stalwart anti-slavery men. Lincoln would go their lengths in but one particular: he was for prohibiting slavery outright in all the territories.
Then he brought forward some questions for Douglas to answer. Would Douglas vote to admit Kansas, with less than 93,000 inhabitants, if she presented a free-state constitution? Would he vote to acquire fresh territory without regard to its effect on the slavery dispute? If the Supreme Court should decide against the right of a state to prohibit slavery, would he acquiesce? "Can the people of a United States territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a state constitution?"
Douglas had no great difficulty with the first three questions, and the fourth—the second, as Lincoln read them—he had in fact answered several times already, and in a way to please the Democrats of Illinois. But Lincoln, contrary to the advice of his friends, pressed it on him again, with a view to the "all hail hereafter;" for it was meant to bring out the inconsistency of the principle of popular sovereignty with the Dred Scott decision, and the difference between the Northern and the Southern Democrats. Douglas answered it as he had before. The people of a territory, through their legislature, could, by friendly laws or merely by denying legislative protection, make it impossible for a slaveowner to hold his slaves among them, no matter what rights he might have under the Constitution. Lincoln declared that the answer was historically false, since slaves had been held in territories in spite of unfriendly legislation, and pointed out that if the Dred Scott decision was right, the members of a territorial legislature, when they took an oath to support the Constitution, bound themselves to grant slavery protection. Later, in a fifth and last question, he asked whether, in case the slaveowners of a territory demanded of Congress protection for their property, Douglas would vote to give it to them. But Douglas fell back upon his old position that Congress had no right to intervene. He would not break with his supporters in Illinois, but by his "Freeport Doctrine" of unfriendly legislation he had broken forever with the men who were now in control of his party in the Southern states.
It was Lincoln who took the aggressive on principles. A famous paragraph of his speech before the convention which nominated him began with the words: "'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." That was a direct challenge to Douglas and his whole plan with slavery, and throughout the debate, at every meeting, the doctrine of the divided house was attacked and defended. Douglas declared that Lincoln was inciting half his countrymen to make war upon the other half; that he went for a uniformity of domestic institutions everywhere, instead of letting different communities manage their domestic affairs as they chose. But no, Lincoln protested, he was merely for resisting the spread of slavery, and putting it in such a state that the public mind would rest in the hope of its ultimate extinction. "But why," cried Douglas, "cannot this government go on as the fathers left it, as it has gone on for more than a century? Lincoln met him on that ground, and had the better of him in discussing what the fathers meant concerning slavery. They did not mean, he argued, to leave it alone to grow and spread; for they prohibited it in the Northwest Territory; they left the word "slave" out of the Constitution, in the hope of a time when there should be no slaves under the flag. On the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence, however, Douglas had a certain advantage, for Lincoln found the difficulty which candid minds still find in applying the principle of equality to races of unequal strength. Douglas plainly declared that ours is a white man's government. Lincoln admitted such in inferiority in negroes as would forever prevent the two races from living together on terms of perfect social and political equality; and if there must be inequality, he was in favor of his own race having the superior place. He could only contend, therefore, for the negro's equality in those rights set forth in the Declaration. Douglas made the most of this, and of Lincoln's failure, through a neglect to study the economic character of slavery, to show clearly how the mere restriction of it would lead to its extinction.
Douglas did not, and perhaps he could not, follow Lincoln when he passed from the Declaration and the Constitution to the "higher law," from the question of right and wrong; for there Lincoln rose not merely above Douglas, but above all that sort of politics which both he and Douglas came out of. There, indeed, was the true difference between these men and their causes. Douglas seems to shrink backward into the past, and Lincoln to come nearer and grow larger as he proclaims: "That is the real issue. That is the issue which will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world."
Nevertheless, Douglas won the senatorship and kept his hold on the Northern Democrats. Immediately he paid a visit to the South. He got a hearing there, and so made good his boast that he could proclaim his principles anywhere in the Union; but when he returned to Washington, he found that the party caucus, controlled by Buchanan and the Southerners, had deposed him from the chairmanship of the Committee on Territories, which he had held so many years, and from this time he was constantly engaged with the enemies he had made by his course on Lecompton and by his Freeport Doctrine. His Northern opponents were no longer in his way. He had overmatched Sumner and Seward in the Senate and beaten the administration, and held his own with Lincoln; but the unbending and relentless Southerners he could neither beat nor placate. It was men like Jefferson Davis in the Senate, and Yancey at Southern barbecues and conventions, who stood now between him and his ambition. That very slave power which he had served so well was upreared to crush him because he had come to the limit of his subserviency. His plan of squatter sovereignty had not got the Southerners Kansas or any other slave state to balance California and Minnesota and Oregon. They demanded of Congress positive protection for slavery in the territories. The most significant debate of the session was between Douglas, on the one side and a group of Southern Senators, led by Jefferson Davis, on the other. He stood up against them manfully, and told them frankly that not a single Northern state would vote for any candidate on their platform, and they as flatly informed him that he could not carry a single Southern state on his.
He was too good a politician to yield, even if there had been no other reason to stand firm, but continued to defend the only doctrine on which there was the slightest chance of beating the Republicans in the approaching election. One method he took to defend it was novel, but he has had many imitators among public men of later years. He wrote out his argument for Harper's, the most popular magazine of the day. The article is not nearly so good reading as his speeches, but it was widely read. Judge Black, the Attorney-General of Buchanan's Cabinet, made a reply to it, and Douglas rejoined; but little of value was added to the discussions in Congress and on the stump. The Southerners, however, would not take warning. As they saw their long ascendency in the government coming to an end, their demands rose higher. Some of them actually began to agitate for a revival of the African slave trade: and this, also, Douglas had to oppose. His following in the Senate was now reduced to two or three, and one of these, Broderick, of California, a brave and steadfast man, was first defeated by the Southern interest, and then slain in a duel. John Brown's invasion of Virginia somewhat offset the aggressions of the South; but that, too, might have gone for a warning. The elections in the autumn of 1859 were enough to show that the North was no longer disposed to forbearance with slavery. Douglas went as far as any man in reason could go in denouncing John Brown, and those who were thought to have set him on; and he supported a new plan for getting Cuba. But Davis, on the very eve of the Democratic convention at Charleston, was pressing upon the Senate a series of resolutions setting forth the extreme demand of the South concerning the territories. He was as bitter toward Douglas as he was toward the Republicans. At Charleston, Yancey took the same tone with the convention.
Practically the whole mass of the Northern Democrats were for Douglas now, and the mass of Southern Democrats were against him. The party was divided, as the whole country was, by a line that ran from east to west. Yet it was felt that nothing but the success of that party would avert the danger of disunion; and the best judges were of opinion that it could not succeed with any other candidate than Douglas or any other platform than popular sovereignty. His managers at Charleston offered the Cincinnati platform of 1856, with the addition of a demand for Cuba and an indorsement of the Dred Scott decision and of any future decisions of the Supreme Court on slavery in the territories. But the Southerners would not yield a hair's breadth. Yancey, their orator, upbraided Douglas and his followers because they did not dare to tell the North that slavery was right. In that strange way the question of right and wrong was forced again upon the man who strove to ignore it. Senator Pugh, of Ohio, spokesman for Douglas, answered the fire eaters. "Gentlemen of the South," he cried, "you mistake us! You mistake us! We will not do it!" The Douglas platform was adopted, and the men of the cotton states withdrew. On ballot after ballot, a majority of those who remained and a majority of the whole convention stood firm for Douglas; but it was decided that two thirds of the whole convention were required to nominate. Men who had followed his fortunes until his ambition was become their hope in life, wearied out with the long deferment, broke down and wept. Finally, it was voted to adjourn to Baltimore. In the interval Davis and Douglas fell once more into their bitter controversy in the Senate.
At Baltimore a new set of delegates from the cotton states appeared in place of the seceders; but they were no sooner admitted than another group withdrew and even Cushing, the chairman, left his seat and followed them. Douglas telegraphed his friends to sacrifice him if it were necessary to save his platform; but the rump convention adopted the platform and nominated him. The two groups of seceders united upon the Yancey platform, and Breckinridge, of Kentucky, for a candidate. A new party of sincere but unpractical Union-Savers took the field, with John Bell, an old Whig, for a candidate, and a platform of patriotic platitudes. The Republicans, guided in ways they themselves did not understand, had put aside Seward, and taken Lincoln to be their leader.
The rivals were again confronted, but on cruelly unequal terms. From the first, it was clear that nearly the whole North was going Republican, and that the cotton states were for Breckinridge or disunion. Whatever chance Douglas had in the border states and in the Democratic states of the North was destroyed by the new party. But he knew he was at the head of the true party of Jefferson; he felt that the old Union would not stand if he were beaten. He was the leader of a forlorn hope, but he led it superbly well. He undertook a canvas of the country the like of which no candidate had ever made before. At the very outset of it he was called upon to show his colors in the greater strife that was to follow. At Norfolk, in Virginia, it was demanded of him to say whether the doctrine of a Black Republican President would justify the Southern state in seceding. He answered, no. Pennsylvania was again the pivotal state, and at an election in October the Republicans carried it over all their opponent combined. Douglas was in Iowa when he heard the news. He said calmly to his companions: "Lincoln is the next President. I have no hope and no destiny before me but to do my best to save the Union from overthrow. Now let us turn our course to the South,"—and he proceeded through the border states straight to the heart of the kingdom of slavery and cotton. The day before the election he spoke at Montgomery, Yancey's home; that night he slept at Mobile. If in 1858 he was like Napoleon the afternoon of Marengo, now he was Napoleon struggling backward in the darkness toward the lost field of Waterloo. There was a true dignity and a true patriotism in his appeal to his maddened countrymen not to lift their hands against the Union their fathers made:—
"Woodman, spare that tree! Touch not a single bough!"
An old soldier of the Confederacy, scarred with the wounds he took at Bull Run, looking back over a wasted life to the youth he sacrificed in that ill-starred cause, remembers now, as he remembers nothing else of the whole year of revolution, the last plea of Douglas for the old party, the old Constitution, the old Union.
He carried but one state outright, and got but twelve votes in the electoral college. Lincoln swept the North, Breckinridge the South, and Bell the border states. Nevertheless, in the popular vote, hopeless candidate that he was, he stood next to Lincoln, and none of his competitors had a following so evenly distributed throughout the whole country.
When all was over, he could not rest, for he was still the first man in Congress, but hurried back to Washington and joined in the anxious conferences of such as were striving for a peaceable settlement. When South Carolina seceded, he announced plainly enough that he did not believe in the right of secession, or consider that there was any grievance sufficient to justify the act. But he was for concessions, if they would save the country from civil war. Crittenden, of Kentucky, coming forward, after the manner of Clay, with a series of amendments to the Constitution, and another Committee of Thirteen being named, Douglas was ready to play the same part he had played in 1850. The plan could not pass the Senate, however, and one after another the cotton states followed South Carolina. Then he labored with the men of the border states, and broke his last lance with Breckinridge, who, when he ceased to be Vice President, came down for a little while upon the floor as Senator, to defend the men whom he was about to join in arms against their country. Douglas engaged him with all the old fire and force, and worsted him in the debate.
His bearing toward Lincoln was generous and manly. When Lincoln, rising to pronounce his first inaugural address, looked awkwardly about him for a place to bestow his hat, that he might adjust his glasses to read those noble paragraphs, Douglas came forward and took it from his hand. The graceful courtesy won him praise; and that was his attitude toward the new administration. The day Sumter was fired on he went to the President to offer his help and counsel. There is reason to believe that during those fearful early days of power and trial Lincoln came into a better opinion of his rival.
The help of Douglas was of moment, for he had the right to speak for the Democrats of the North. On his way homeward he was everywhere besought to speak. Once he was aroused from sleep to address an Ohio regiment marching to the front, and his great voice rolled down upon them, aligned beneath him in the darkness, a word of loyalty and courage. At Chicago he spoke firmly and finally, for himself and for his party. While the hope of compromise lingered he had gone to the extreme of magnanimity; but the time for compromise was past. "There can be no neutrals in this war," he said; "only patriots and traitors." These were the best words he could have spoken. They were the last he ever spoke to his countrymen, for at once he was stricken down with a swift and mortal illness, and hurried to his end. A little while before the end his wife bent over him for a message to his sons. He roused himself, and said, "Tell them to obey the laws and support the Constitution of the United States." He died on June 11, 1861, in the forty-ninth year of his age.
It was a hard time to die. War was at hand, and his strong nature stirred at the call. Plunged in his youth into affairs, and wonted all his life to action, he had played a man's part in great events, and greater were impending. He had taken many blows of men and circumstance, and stormy times might bring redress. He was leader, and for want of him a great party must go leaderless and stumbling to a long series of defeats. He was a true American, and his country was in danger. He was ambitious, and his career was not rightly finished. He was the second man in the republic, and he might yet be the first.
But first he never could have been while Lincoln lived, nor ever could have got a hold like Lincoln's on his kind. His place is secure among the venturesome, strong, self-reliant men who in various ages and countries have for a time hastened, or strayed, or diverted from its natural channel the great stream of affairs. The sin of his ambition is forgiven him for the good end he made. Yet for all his splendid energy and his brilliant parts, for all the charm of his bold assault on fortune and his dauntless bearing in adversity, we cannot turn from him to his rival without changed and softened eyes. For Lincoln, indeed is one of the few men eminent in politics whom we admit into the hidden places of our thought; and there, released from that coarse clay which prisoned him, we companion him forever with the gentle and heroic of older lands. Douglas abides without.
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