An American StatesmanThe Illustrated London News, vol. 38, no. 1096, pp. 599-600.
June 29, 1861
The history of a nation may be read in the lives of its statesmen. While the leader of the Italian liberals was drawing his last breath in Turin, the body of the Coryphaeus of the American Democrats of the North was lying in state in Chicago. Mr. Douglas died on the 3rd, Count Cavour on the 6th, instant. Both died prematurely, the one having just completed his forty-eighth, the other his fifty-first, year. Both died from over-exertion, though to the Italian the effects of that over-exertion were rendered fatal by too sedentary habits and ignorant doctors, while in the case of the American a fatal tendency to indulgence aided in ruining a physical constitution of uncommon vigour and powers of endurance. A useful moral can be drawn from the career of each. Count Cavour, by subordinating his energies to great ideas, lived long enough to see Piedmont merged into Italy and the darling objects of his life all but accomplished. The Illinois senator, by making his whole political career subserve the idea of self-aggrandisement at any sacrifice of principle and consistency, did more than any other man to bring upon his country the dire calamity of that civil war on the opening scenes of which his eyes closed. The name of Cavour will occupy a bright page in the history of this century; the reputation of Douglas will survive in the annuls of the United States only as a memorial of a debased epoch of their political life. It is scarcely fair to America to push the contrast between these two eminent publicists further, for Cavour was the consummate flower of European statesmanship, while Douglas was only the highest type of a low but not the less influential order of American politicians. The best class of American statesmen in active life, those who represent the more cultivated classes of their countrymen, are not to be found in the ranks of the Democratic party, nor in fellowship with Mr. Douglas. Seward and Sumner, Chase and Banks, Hall, Everett, and Winthrop, are all scholarly, "bookish" men, eager students of European history and literature, claiming a strong affinity with the intellectual movement, and respecting the public opinion of the leading nations of Western and Central Europe. Stephen Arnold Douglas was not a man of this stamp. He had no taste for literary studies. He was purely American, un-European, racy of the soil, a representative man of the masses of his countrymen. His thorough personal identity with the people was the chief source of his strength, and he knew it. To have undergone the laborious operation of refining his tastes and habits, and of cultivating the fine natural powers of his mind, would only have broken that identity and weakened that influence. Why should he not remain as he was—a powerful and ready debater, a subtle and resourceful dialectician, a success demagogue, the greatest stump orator of the age? By inspecting the career of such a man, who aimed to be and was a faithful reflex of the popular as distinguished from the cultivated American mind, we are able to gain a much truer insight into the favourite prejudices and ambitions of the Northern masses than if we examined the life and speeches of Webster, Calhoun, or Seward.
The history of Mr. Douglas's advancement is a wonderful example of the rapid elevation of a clever young politician from the lowest ranks to the highest office, save the Presidency, which his party could bestow. At the age of twenty he emigrated from Western New York to Illinois, and began life as an apprentice to a cabinet-maker. He then became a school-teacher and a law-student. Almost immediately after receiving his diploma, and before he reached the age of twenty-two, he was elected to the office of Attorney-General of the State! This manufacturing of an Attorney-General out of a law-student in the short space of eighteen months is a brilliant achievement, hardly possible under a tamer régime than that of manhood suffrage. After this, and while yet under the age of thirty, he became successively Secretary of State and Judge of the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois. In 1843 he was elected to the lower branch of Congress, and twice re-elected. In 1847, when but thirty-five, the earliest eligible age, he was raised by the Illinois Legislature to the highest office in their gift—a seat in the Senate of the United States—which he retained, after two re-elections, until his death. In Europe clever young demagogues do not become Attorney-Generals at
twenty-two, Supreme Judges at twenty-eight, and grave and reverend senators at thirty-five. No wonder young America looked up to him as their natural leader. Higher, however, he was not destined to rise. In the nominating Convention of the Democratic party in 1852 Mr. Pierce was selected before him as their candidate for the presidency. In 1856 the cautious men of that party preferred Mr. Buchanan to the author of the Acts which repealed the Missouri Compromise; but Mr. Douglas was their second choice. In 1860 he obtained the nomination at last; but the extreme Southern party, offended at his acts of contumacy in the two preceding years, seceded from the Convention and nominated Mr. Breckinridge. Mr. Douglas occupied middle ground between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Breckinridge, between the anti and pro slavery candidates; but that middle ground was also occupied by Mr. Bell. Yet, notwithstanding these enormous disadvantages, his hold on the masses of his countrymen was so strong that he polled more than a million and a quarter votes, and within six hundred thousand of the votes given for Mr. Lincoln.
We have said that no one man has done more than Mr. Douglas to precipitate his country into civil war. He has done this, as a Northerner, by ministering to the worst passions of the slaveowners, by intoxicating them with a delusive sense of power and distempered visions of empire. There have always been two parties in the South-the moderate, self-restraining portion, headed by such politicians as Clay, Crittenden, and Bell, and the extreme self-indulging party. Mr. Douglas, though a Northern man, did his best until 1858 to aggrandise the latter and overwhelm the former. He has been but too successful. He was an ardent advocate of the immediate annexation of Texas, of the war with Mexico, of the acquisition of Cuba (whether by purchase or war), and of the filibustering expeditions of Walker in Central America. All these measures were recommended to the extreme Southern party as calculated to extend the area of slavery, and for the same reason deprecated by the moderate Southerners. But his most fatal act was the introduction, in 1854, of the measure for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, whereby the slaveowners were allowed to carry their slaves into the territories of Nebraska and Kansas. For this measure he, as its father and as chairman of the Senate's Committee on Territories, is personally responsible. It was the last tempting cup he pressed to the lips of the already inflamed and giddy Southerners.
But for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise the secession of the Southern States would at least have been delayed for many years. The immediate effects of it on the party politics of the United States were two—namely, the extinction of the moderate party in the South, and the rise of a party in the North pledged to overthrow the ascendancy of Southern politicians and principles in the Government of the Union. The collision between the two sectional parties which Mr. Douglas's policy created brought about the Southern secession and the civil war which thereon ensued. Mr. Douglas lived just long enough to witness the evil fruit of his self-seeking schemes, and in the eyes of his Northern fellow-citizens to atone for all his errors, by raising his latest breath in favour of a war for chastising those very Southerners to whose demoralisation he himself had contributed.
Hac fonte derivata clades,
In populum patriamque fluxit.
His admirers may also urge in his defence that since 1858 he withstood the Pro-Slavery extremists. He who had no words but those of contumely for the Free-State majority in Kansas in 1855, '56, and '57, when shot down and trampled upon by Missouri "Border ruffians" and Federal soldiers—he who looked on with his hands in his pockets while Preston Brooks was seeking the life of Charles Sumner in the Senate Chamber itself—contended for the rights of the majority in 1858. Here again self-interest affords the clue to his conduct. In that year Mr. Douglas's seat in the Senate was in danger. The agitation which the repeal of the Missouri Compromise had called forth had had its effect on the people of Illinois as of every other Northern State. Mr. Lincoln, a man of the people like Mr. Douglas, an equally able dialectician, and distinguished for those high moral qualities in which Mr. Douglas was so deficient, was put forward by the Republicans of Illinois as the representative of the anti-slavery sentiment. Mr. Douglas found that if he came before the people of Illinois in his old character, as an unmitigated champion of slavery extension, he would infallibly be beaten by Mr. Lincoln, lose his seat in the Senate, his position in his State, and, consequently, his prospects of being Mr. Buchanan's successor. The first thing needful was to retain his seat in the Senate. That secured, he would again bid for the suffrages of the South. Thus, in 1858, he found it his interest to take up middle ground, to profess entire indifference to the extension or non-extension of slavery, and to argue in favour of the right of the majority of the settlers to determine this question as they pleased. On this platform, and by accusing Mr. Lincoln of advocating the "monstrous idea" of "nigger equality" with the white man, Mr. Douglas was able to win a fraudulent victory over his opponent. The triumph was not fairly won, because Mr. Douglas's friends in the State Legislature had refused to repartition the electoral districts of the State according to the returns of the latest Census, as they were bound by the State Constitution to do, and thus Mr. Douglas, who was defeated on the aggregate vote, was able to obtain a majority in the Electoral College. Returned a third time to the Senate, Mr. Douglas, finding that all overtures for reconciliation with the Southern leaders were contemptuously rejected, continued to uphold the doctrine of "popular sovereignty," or the right of the majority, and in so doing confirmed the liberties of the people of Kansas against which he had formerly conspired. But the pro-Slavery champions, in humouring whose extravagant pretensions the best years of his life had been spent, did not forgive him for this eleventh-hour desertion of their cause. They resolved he should not be Mr. Buchanan's successor, and threw the game into the hands of Mr. Douglas's old antagonist, Abraham Lincoln. Vain were Mr. Douglas's almost superhuman efforts to stem the tide of his destiny. Vain was that unparalleled display of egotistic stump-oratory by which during the hot summer and early autumn months of last year he actually made a personal canvass of the whole constituency of the Union from Maine to Louisiana. He lived to witness his rival's triumph, and even to hold his rival's hat during the delivery of the Inaugural Address from the steps of the Capitol. The over-exertion and exposure which his first and second contests with Mr. Lincoln necessitated, and the excitement of a simultaneous struggle with the Southern politicians, determined to rule or ruin, brought on a series of attacks which wrecked a constitution naturally very strong, and which, moreover, his bar-room tastes had long helped to undermine.
Mr. Douglas's forte lay in expressing cogently and intensely the dominant prejudices of the coarser portion of the Northerners. Their love of territorial aggrandisement at any price, of war and liquor, their hatred of England and the negro race, found in him an energetic exponent. In the debate in 1845 on the Oregon Boundary question Mr. Douglas gained great popularity by a "fifty-four forty or fight"* speech, of the tenor of which one sentence will give a fair idea:—"If, to maintain our just rights, we must have war, let us be prepared to drive Great Britain, with the last vestiges of Royal authority, from the continent of North America, and make the United States an ocean-bound republic."
In the international embroglio [sic] which arose out of the construction put upon the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty by the democratic politicians Mr. Douglas was equally passionate and uncompromising. Moloch-like, his voice was ever the loudest for open war with Britain or Spain. If, of late years, the American people have abandoned much of their old bitterness of feeling towards us—a bitterness, however, which is just now enjoying the honour of a revival—this happy change of sentiment has been effected in spite of the appeals of Mr. Douglas and his followers. That Mr. Douglas's hot ambition to fill the chair once occupied by Washington was doomed to disappointment is no loss to the cause of civilisation. It redounds to the credit of the Americans of the North that in the late memorable Presidential contest in every Northern State, except New Jersey, the arbitrament of manhood suffrage, usually so perilous to the better cause, was in favour of Abraham Lincoln and against Stephen Arnold Douglas.
*The Democratic party claimed that the United States' territory extended to 54° 40' N. lat. Hence the watchword "fifty-four forty or fight" became popular until the question was peaceably settled.