Book Review: Stephen A Douglas (American Crisis Biographies), by Henry Parker Willis
At least part of the nobility of Abraham Lincoln depends on the greatness of his first great adversary for office, Stephen Douglas. If this author is more favorable to his subject than I am, that is to be expected , but at the same time the death of Douglas shortly after the beginning of the Civil War was a great tragedy for the United States, not least because it deprived the Union of a strong War Democrat who could have kept his party in line when it came to supporting troops as well as providing loyal opposition within Congress. Alas, the poor timing of his premature death was only one of the ways in which Stephen Douglas was both a victim and a perpetrator of bad timing, seeing as it was his Kansas-Nebraska Act which, having been written and passed as a means of gaining clout and support for his own efforts to win the presidency, brought about the storm that destroyed his own political hopes and nearly the United States as a whole. And if he is little remembered today except by students of the Civil War, he is certainly a man well worth understanding for his influence upon his times.
This book is about 350 pages long or so and gives a chronological biography of Stephen Douglas. The author begins with the subject’s youth, something that (like Lincoln) he was rather reticent to talk about in great deal because of his lack of formal education (1). After that there is a discussion of Douglas’ entrance into state politics (2) and how he exploited the Mormons for some early popularity (3). There is a discussion of his apprenticeship to power in the House of Representatives during the Mexican War (4) and how he handled the questions of war and slavery in his personal as well as political life (5). The author explores Douglas’ cozy relationship with the Illinois Central Railroad (6) as well as with his behavior as he was on the threshold of entering the Senate (7). The issues of the compromise between the North and South (8) and his efforts to distract the nation with foreign policy crusades (9) leads to a discussion of how he brought the final crisis of the antebellum United States on through his efforts to draft and pass the Kansas-Nebraska act (10). After this the author discusses the shifting party lines that destroyed his best chance for the presidency (11) as well as the debate over the legitimacy of the Lecompton Constitution of Kansas (12). This leads to a discussion of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which the author does not view as being that important or well-handled (13), Douglas’ alienation from the south (14), and the last battle of his life over the presidency (15) which led to Lincoln’s victory and to Douglas’ death as a man without a party (16), after which the book ends with a bibliography, notes, and index.
Douglas was a man of both strengths and weaknesses that merit study. While he was a master political manipulator and creator of machines and adroit debater, he had a distinct failure to understand the appeal of idealism to either potential political friends or opponents. And given his focus on expediency, it was not particularly surprising that he was able to long obtain a high degree of political power on the state and national level and to acquire a well-earned reputation for getting things done but to be shipwrecked when his pragmatism ran afoul of the idealistic political tradition that can be found most positively in Abraham Lincoln and most disastrously in the proslavery hotheads who brought the Civil War upon this country. This book, by focusing on the cut and thrust of practical politics at which Douglas excelled, also reminds us of his failures as a political thinker and of the immense consequences of his political machinations on the fate of the United States during the middle of the 19th century. If Douglas was not a noble figure on the level of Lincoln, neither was he a person of the darkest levels of evil, even if he comes off as somewhat of a Faustian figure of tragedy in the time of crisis before the Civil War. He helped to release the worldwide before being destroyed by it.