At What Price Reconciliation: Lessons From Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas is known mainly today as the great, and ultimately unsuccessful, debate partner of Abraham Lincoln.  He is the hero of many revisionist historians, who view him as the “Great White Hope” of having prevented the Civil War, whose efforts at sectional reconciliation were undone by Northern “extremists” like Abraham Lincoln.  This condemnation is unjust, if one views the moral character of the United States as more important than superficial unity, but the fate of Stephen Douglas ought to lead to a greater consideration of the proper place of reconciliation when dealing with deep conflict.

Stephen Douglas was himself born of Irish ancestry in Vermont.  As a young man he settled in Illinois and quickly became recognized as an effective orator and a successful politician.  He served in the House of Representatives and then Senate for a little over two terms before being chosen as the Northern Democrats’ choice for President of the United States.  While in the Senate he became known as one of the most prominent Doughfaces, Northern men with Southern principles whom the Democrats could support in unison, in the vein of Lewis Cass (1848), Franklin Pierce (1852), and James Buchanan (1856).  Douglas himself was close in views to Lewis Cass, who defended the viewpoint of “squatter sovereignty” about the right of settlers to choose whether they wanted slavery or not, a viewpoint very close to Douglas’ formulation of “Popular Sovereignty.”  Additionally, through his first wife, Douglas was the owner of a large plantation in Mississippi, whose wealth bankrolled his political ambition but whose day-to-day administration he kept at arms length to preserve his acceptable standing as a Northern politician [1].

Reflecting on the fact that Stephen Douglas’ stand on slavery was disingenuous because of his own (unrecognized) position as a slave owner, let us examine why the South rejected Douglas in 1860.  It was not as if the North in 1860 was filled with abolitionists–even Abraham Lincoln, who was a moderate Republican but entirely unacceptable to the South, consistently denied any intention of giving civil rights to blacks but was insistent that they earned the right to the fruits of their own labor (which is precisely my position in my note “Entitlement And Property”).  Douglas himself claimed that neither slavery nor freedom was superior, that it was strictly to be determined by the interests of the white men in any given territory.  His view would be similar to those who would deny any superiority to a moral stance in other contentious issues but believed that decisions on such matters as abortion or marriage had to take place on the state rather than federal level.

This view, however, was unacceptable to the South.  The South demanded the recognition of a slave code that explicitly permitted slaves to be brought by Southern slave owners to any part of the United States.  Even Douglas Democrats in the north, who were absolutely not abolitionist supporters were threatened by this, and no northern politician could win election to dogcatcher with these views.  The threat of recognizing slave codes, which both Lincoln and Douglas, was that black slaves could destroy the bargaining position of white free labor and reduce all poor people (including the poor urban population of Northern cities) to the position of slavery.  This was unacceptable to the North, for very obvious reasons.  The fact that the South could not accept that Douglas was as far pro-slavery as his shrinking (by 1860) Northern constituency would allow but still too pro-slavery for a North growing rapidly upset at being held hostage by pompous and arrogant Southern minorities who threatened secession if they didn’t get their way in every sectional dispute never seems to have crossed the mind of the South.

Douglas did all that was humanly possible to preserve even a superficial and dishonorable peace between North and South.  He deliberately minimized the moral position of antislavery views, eloquently defended by Abraham Lincoln, seeing them as a threat to Union, even as he sought to allay the justified fears of Northerners that the South sought to reduce all common folk to slavery, which was a position supported by the most vocal slavery apologists in the South, who ironically enough were often of a socialist mindset [2].  Douglas’ shepherding to passage of the Compromise of 1850 and his sponsoring of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 led to open warfare over whether slavery was to be present in Kansas as well as armed confrontations over the kidnapping of free blacks in the North by federal officials.  The South did not see the dangers of trampling on the sensibilities of the North even as they demanded respect for their dishonorable peculiar institution.

Reconciliation proved impossible because the South refused to moderate their demands for rule of the United States despite their minority status and because the North refused to surrender their demand to have their legitimate majority recognized throughout the nation.  Eventually, Stephen Douglas, despite all of his efforts at sectional moderation, had no more room to maneuver between Southern radicals bent on the full recognition of slavery everywhere (a position supported by Taney’s Supreme Court, itself a bastion of false history and pseudo-originalism) and upset Northerners for whom enough was enough.  The result was civil war.

Douglas drastically shortened his life in making speech after speech in the South urging the Southerners to accept the Constitutional election of 1860, warning them against the step of secession, but Southern radicals refused to listen to their most faithful friend in the North.  They willingly marched to the destruction of their own wicked and evil culture because they refused to accept the loss of power or privilege that the North’s clear victory in 1860, and refused to humble themselves to accept minority status and the cease of expansion of their wicked and debased practices of plantation slavery.  They brought their destruction upon themselves after hearing the prescient warnings of one of their own.  Douglas could have done no more than he did for reconciliation, and though his own viewpoints were odious, one must respect the sincerity of his failed effort for reconciliation.

Reconciliation is, after all, impossible if there is no desire to work together and resolve problems.  If one side in a dispute is unwilling to concede defeat despite the legitimacy of the opposition to the spoils of office, there is no option except some kind of open conflict, if those who have the right to enjoy their victory are not craven enough to surrender their legitimacy for a temporary peace.  Once the conflict is joined by two sides who refuse to back down, warfare is inevitable.  The only question becomes–which side are you on?

[1] Clinton, Anita Watkins. “Stephen Arnold Douglas – His Mississippi Experience” Journal of Mississippi History 1988 50(2): 56-88.

[2] George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All!  Or, Slaves Without Masters, (Bedford, MA:  Applewood Books, 1857).

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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