In the Quincy debate, and again in the last debate at Alton, Douglas, with great skill, took up the attack made upon him by the Buchanan Administration because of his alleged heresies on the Kansas question. The Washington Union in an editorial had condemned his Freeport declaration that the people could by their unfriendly attitude exclude slavery from a Territory. It argued that his plan was to exclude it by means of his device of popular sovereignty and declared that he was not a sound Democrat and had not been since 1850. He quoted from Buchanan's letter accepting the nomination, in which he warmly applauded those "principles as ancient as free government itself * * * in accordance with which * * * * the people of a Territory, like those of a State, shall decide for themselves whether slavery shall or shall not exist within their limits."
He also quoted in vindication of the soundness of his Democracy a speech of Jefferson Davis declaring that, if the inhabitants of a Territory should refuse to enact laws to protect and encourage slavery, the insecurity would be so great that the owner could not hold his slaves.
"Therefore," said Davis, "though the right would remain, the remedy being withheld, it would follow that the owner would be practically debarred from taking slave property into a Territory when the sense of its inhabitants was opposed to its introduction."
These latter arguments were addressed to the Administration Democrats, who, however, proved a quite unimportant factor in the campaign. They were an utter negation politically. Were it an academic problem, much could be said in their defense. In a time of stormy passion, they were passionless. In a time of fanatical convictions and intolerant opinions, they were coldly neutral, appealing with impotent pride to the traditions and precedents of the past.
The election was held on the 2nd of November. The Republicans elected their State ticket by a popularity of nearly 4,000, but lost the legislature. When that body met Douglas was again chose Senator.
Chapter XVI. The South Rejects Popular Sovereignty.
Although victorious in the greatest battle of his life the position of Douglas was not easy. The people of Illinois were evidently no longer in sympathy with him. The Buchanan Administration and the Southern extremists had openly declared war on him for his cool indifference to the special interests of the South, his carelessness whether slavery was voted up or voted down in the Territories, and his hostility to their plans for planting it in Kansas. He was preparing for his last struggle for the Presidency. Having won this doubtful victory at home, he decided to make a tour of the South in the hope of stimulating its waning enthusiasm. In order to hold the Senatorship it had been necessary to please Illinois, even though the South were alienated. In order to win the Presidency he now resolved to satisfy the South, even though he offended Illinois. Moreover, being at war with the Administration, he hoped to return to Washington with the prestige of a re-election and a great Southern ovation. He intended to force Buchanan and his Cabinet to sue for peace. He was political strategist enough to understand the importance of a bold front and an imposing display of power at the outset of his next campaign.
He took boat at St. Louis for New Orleans and enjoyed the leisurely autumn trip down the River. He spoke at Memphis on November 29th, and at New Orleans on December 6th. He sailed to Havana and thence to New York, where he received a royal welcome. On reaching Philadelphia he was formally welcomed at Independence Hall. He then went to Baltimore and spoke in Monument Square on the evening of January 5th, returning to Washington next day. On the 10th he resumed his seat in the Senate.
He had told the people of Illinois that, in spite of the Constitution, the Supreme Court, the President and Congress, it was within the power of the inhabitants of a Territory to prohibit slavery by their unfriendly attitude. This doctrine was utterly abhorrent to the South, which now rested its entire case on the judicial interpretation of the Constitution and regarded all attempts to evade the full force of the Dred Scott decision as little less than treason. The net result of the struggles of a decade had been the establishment of a principle that the Constitution carried slavery with it wherever it went. To lightly treat the Constitution as a thing that could be quietly defied and annulled by the squatters, was to strip their great victory of all value and snatch from them the fruit of their labors. Had this doctrine of local nullification been sound, it was not to be expected that it would be received with enthusiasm or even with patience by men whose dearest hopes it must obviously defeat and whose subtle art and long protracted labors it utterly thwarted. But that daring sophism which attacked the very foundation of all legal authority, did violence to every sound principle of philosophy, and was utterly subversive of the peculiar and cherished doctrines of the South, should have been resorted to by Douglas to avoid defeat in Illinois, was viewed as a shameless outrage. It was believed that he had sacrificed their sacred cause in order to avoid a local reverse; that his seat in the Senate was dearer to him than their most valued interests.
It was probable that in his eagerness to win the Illinois campaign he had not considered seriously the irreconcilable repugnance of his distinctive dogma to the compact body of Southern political philosophy. It was now necessary to present it to the South in such dress that it might, if possible, gain acceptance, at least that it might not shock the deepest prejudices of that section.
In addressing his Southern audiences he attempted to take the sting out of his obnoxious doctrine by showing that it was entirely harmless. The people of the Territories, he said, doubtless had the practical power, in spite of the Constitution, statutes and decisions, to exclude slavery by their unfriendly attitude toward it. But what would determine their attitude? Clearly their selfish interests. If slavery would be profitable, their attitude would be friendly and it would take root and flourish under the protection of the law. If by reason of soil or climate it would be unprofitable, their attitude would be unfriendly and neither laws nor Constitutions could successfully foster it. But it could not injure the South to exclude slavery from regions where it could only be maintained at a loss. It was not a question of ethics, but purely of physical geography. Where soil and climate rendered it profitable, it would spring up in precisely the same way as pine trees or maize.
But it was clear to his keen eye that these feats of ingenuity were taken at their real worth. While the people treated him with gracious courtesy, they prudently reserved their judgement. They paid generous honor to the great leader whom they would gladly use but dared not trust. He had chosen to hold Illinois and had lost the South.
While he was vainly trying to woo back the alienated South, a significant event occurred in Washington. When the Senate was organized during his absence, he was removed from the chairmanship of the Committee on Territories, which he had held since his first election. This was done by the Democratic caucus and indicated a deeper resentment than he had suspected. The Puritans of Illinois had once risen in insurrection against him. The Cavaliers of the South were now sternly protesting against his easy political morals.
For six weeks he preserved almost complete silence. His situation was anomalous. The quarrel with the Administration was implacable. A few months before, the Republicans were inclined to court him; but the desperate battle with Lincoln had made it clear that his quarrel with them was on perennial questions of principle. Solitary and out of touch with all parties, he was yet recognized as the chief of the Northern Democrats and a formidable candidate for the Presidency.
While diplomatically awaiting developments, he was suddenly drawn into an important debate. On February 23rd Senator Brown of Mississippi discussed with great plainness his attitude on the slavery question. With ill concealed contempt for men whose opinions shaped themselves to suit the demands of political strategy he said:
"I at least am no spoilsman. I would rather settle one sound principle in a presidential contest than secure all the patronage of all the Presidents who have ever been elected to or retired from the office. * * * The Constitution never gave us rights and denied us the means of protecting and defending those rights. The Supreme Court has decided that we have a right to carry our slaves into the Territories and, necessarily, to have them protected after we get there. * * * I neither want to cheat nor to be cheated in the great contest that is to come off in 1860. * * * I think I understand the position of the Senator from Illinois and I dissent from it. * * * He thinks that a territorial legislature may, by non-action or unfriendly action, rightfully exclude slavery. I do not think so. * * * * The Senator from Illinois thinks the territorial legislature has the right, by non-action or by unfriendly action to exclude us with our slaves. * * * We have a right of protection for our slave property in the Territories. The Constitution as expounded by the Supreme Court awards it. We demand it, and we mean to have it."
Douglas at once answered. He said that his obnoxious doctrine only meant that the territorial legislature by the exercise of the taxing power and other functions within the limits of the Constitution could adopt unfriendly legislation which would practically drive slavery out. The real demand of the South was for a congressional slave code for the Territories. But no Northern man, whether Democrat or Republican, would ever vote for such a code. The inhabitants would protect slavery if they wanted it, if the climate were such that they could not cultivate the soil without it. It was a question of climate, of production, of self-interest, and not of constitutional law. The slave owner had no higher rights than the owner of liquor or inferior cattle, which the territorial legislature could exclude. Under the doctrine of the Kansas-Nebraska act the Territories had the right to pass such laws as they pleased, subject only to the Constitution.
If their laws conflicted with that it was the business, not of Congress, but of the Courts to decide their nullity. When Buchanan accepted the nomination in 1856, he declared that the people of a Territory, like those of a State, should decide for themselves whether slavery should exist within its limits. He could not have carried half the Democratic vote in any free State if the people had not so understood him. "I intend to use language," he continued, "which can be repeated in Chicago as well as in New Orleans, in Charleston as well as in Boston. * * * No political creed is sound or safe which cannot be proclaimed in the same sense wherever the American Flag waves over American soil. If the North and the South cannot come to a common ground on the slavery question the sooner we know it the better. * * * I tell you, gentlemen of the South, in all candor, I do not believe a Democratic candidate can ever carry one Democratic State of the North on the platform that it is the duty of the Federal Government to force the people of a Territory to have slavery when they do not want it."
Davis, the leader of the Southern Democracy, answered him. He reminded the Senate that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from a Territory and the legislature had no power except that given it by Congress. Hence it could not possibly have the power to exclude it. Douglas could not claim more than this unless he could illustrate the philosophical problem of getting more out of a tub than it contained. Congress, having no power to prohibit slavery, was bound to see that it was fully enjoyed.
"I agree with my colleague," he continued, "that we are not, with our eyes open, to be cheated, and that we have no more respect for that man who seeks to evade the performance of a constitutional duty than for one who openly wars upon constitutional rights."
Mason, of Virginia, insisted that the Constitution construed by the Supreme Court denied Congress the power to exclude slavery form a Territory. Douglas admitted that the legislature derived all its power from Congress. Hence, he must admit that it had no power to interfere with slavery.
Green, of Missouri, the new chairman of the Committee on Territories, next attacked him. Slaves, he declared, were property, as decided by the Supreme Court. The Territories of Kansas and Nebraska could not, by either direct or indirect legislation, prohibit or abolish slavery; and if they should undertake to do either it would be the duty of Congress to interpose. The legislature had no more power, by direct or indirect means to prohibit the introduction of slaves than the introduction of horses or mules, and it was a dishonest subterfuge to say that it could be done.
"What is meant by unfriendly legislation? I had thought that rights of person and property were beyond the power of legislation. * * * There never was a legislative body in existence on the face of the globe that could justly take any right of person or property from a citizen without rendering a just compensation." He reminded the Senators that in 1857 Douglas had urged the interposition of Congress in Utah affairs, even to the extent of repealing the organic act, thus recognizing that Territories were mere dependencies of the Federal Government. Why this tenderness about Kansas? A Territory had no power except what was conferred by Congress. Douglas said that all legislative power not inconsistent with the Constitution, was conferred. But if the power to destroy any kind of property was conferred, it would be consistent with the Constitution and the grant would be void. If all power not inconsistent with the Constitution was conferred by the organic act, then the power to call the Lecompton Convention and draft a Constitution was conferred. "All the power the Territory has is derived from Congress and can be resumed at pleasure. The creature can never be equal to its creator."
Douglas said, that if the people of a Territory wanted slavery they would protect it. But suppose the majority did not want it? The Constitution still declared slaves to be property and forbade the majority to take away the property in a slave from a single individual. If they had no right to take it away, what right had they by unfriendly legislation to render it valueless? If a Territory persistently attempted to destroy a species of property protected by the Constitution, ought not Congress to intervene for the protection of the citizens?
Douglas replied to these deadly attacks. He reminded them that when they repealed the Missouri Compromise they had agreed to leave all these questions to the people of the Territories and the decision of the Supreme Court. This was the true Democratic doctrine. Davis and Mason had both said that no man holding his views could receive the support of the South for the Presidency. Yet this was the doctrine of Cass when candidate for President, but the whole South gave him their votes. When did this change of creed occur?
Davis answered briefly, regretting that Douglas had not denied or explained any of his Illinois speeches, and said he was now satisfied that he was as full of heresy as he once was of the true theory of popular sovereignty. He declared that this doctrine was "offensive to every idea of conservatism and sound government; a thing offensive to every idea of the supremacy of the laws of the United States," and announced plainly that the South would not support him for President. He persistently pressed him to say whether he meant to abide by the Dred Scott decision.
The Court, answered Douglas, had decided that neither Congress nor the territorial legislature could prohibit the settler from bringing his slaves to a Territory. "In other words, the right of transit is clear, the right of entry is clear. * * * You have the same right to hold them as other property, subject to such local laws as the legislature may constitutionally enact. If those laws render it impracticable to HOLD your property, whether it be your horse or your slave, why, it is your misfortune."
He had reached the brink of the abyss. The South was preparing for treason and rebellion. Its mood was altogether too tragic to be even amused by his philosophic refinements. It rejected them now, not with contempt, but with horror. The North, too, was in stern mood. Its abhorrence of slavery had intensified with constant agitation. It was grimly earnest in its resolve to resist all further extension of it and resented the indifference of the statesman who did not care whether the burning crime of the ages was voted up or voted down.
Douglas, who regarded the ethics of this question with indifference and who supremely desired to conciliate the South without alienating the North, blundered in plunging into this debate. The Southern Senators were unanswerably right. Since the Dred Scott decision his position was so clearly untenable that to insist upon it amid conditions so threatening seemed to them the most intolerable trifling. The Republicans looked on as pleased spectators while the battle raged between Northern and Southern Democrats and the party was hopelessly torn asunder. It was clear the part of prudence to restrain his impulsive pugnacity for the remaining weeks of the session. But when challenged to defend himself his impatient eagerness to speak was uncontrollable.
Chapter XVII. Seeking Reconciliation.
After the adjournment he devoted himself to a new and unfamiliar task. He prepared an article for Harper's Magazine on the slavery question and its relation to party politics, in which he defended his position, explained his philosophy and sought to throw light on this confused subject. The article made some stir at the time. It contained nothing, however, which he had not already said much better in his speeches. He was not a man of literary culture or habits. His thought was brightest and his eloquence highest when the battle was raging.
The article had the good fortune to provoke a rather elaborate anonymous reply from Jeremiah S. Black, Buchanan's Attorney-general. Black was a profound lawyer and better writer than Douglas. While he would have been no match for him in senatorial debate or on the stump, he completely eclipsed him as a literary controversialist. Moreover, Black was standing on firm ground, simply insisting that his party accept the decision of the Supreme Court as law and conform its conduct to it without evasion or pettifoggery; while Douglas was striving to stand in mid-air, nullifying the decision by clever tricks and condemning as anarchists the Republicans, who frankly confessed their hostility to it. He gravely argued that Congress could grant to a territorial legislature power which the Constitution denied to itself. Black's answer was crushing and showed conclusively that there was no basis in either law or logic for those peculiar doctrines in which Douglas differed from his party. Black judiciously avoided all discussion of the ethics of the question, confining himself to an examination of the legal basis of Douglas' special creed, proving clearly that it had been utterly swept away.
On the night of October 16th occurred John Brown's mad exploit at Harper's Ferry. Congress opened on December 5th. On the 12th of January Douglas' heretical opinions on the right of the people to exclude slavery from the Territories were called in question. The Southern Senators pressed upon him the fact that he had agreed to abide by the decision of the Supreme Court on the disputed question, and, now that the South had been sustained by the decision, he had virtually repudiated it by his Illinois speeches. No man holding such opinions, they declared, was a sound Democrat or could possibly receive the vote of a Southern State at the Charleston Convention. They justified their action in removing him from his chairmanship of the Committee on Territories by a rehearsal of his heretical opinions and announced their purpose to oppose his presidential aspirations. He defended himself against this irregular attack with great ability and courage, maintaining the soundness of his Democracy and imputing heresy to his accusers, who were seeking to debauch the ancient Democratic faith by infusing into it their late-invented doctrines. At last, wearied by the irregular debate, he sarcastically proposed that, as his health was poor, they all make their attacks upon him and present their charges; when they were through he would "fire at the lump" and vindicate every word he had said.
A few days later he offered a resolution to instruct the Judiciary Committee to prepare a bill to suppress and punish conspiracies in one State to invade or otherwise molest the people or property of another, and addressed the Senate upon it. He expressed his firm and deliberate conviction that the John Brown raid at Harper's Ferry was the natural, logical, inevitable result of the doctrines and teachings of the Republican party as explained and the enforced in speeches of its leaders in and out of Congress. He said that when he returned home in 1858 for the purpose of canvassing Illinois with a view to reelection, he had to meet this issue of the irrepressible conflict. Lincoln had already proclaimed the existence of inexpiable hostility between free States and slave States. Later, Seward had announced it in his Rochester speech. It was evidently the creed of his party. The Harper's Ferry outrage was a natural and logical consequence of these pernicious doctrines. John Brown was simply practicing their philosophy at Harper's Ferry. The causes that produced this invasion were still in active operation. These teachers of rebellion were disseminating their deadly principles. Let Congress pass appropriate laws and make such example of the leaders of these conspiracies as to strike terror into the hearts of the others and there would be an end of this crusade.
With all his courage in meeting recent attacks, it was plain that his only hope of the Presidency lay in the prospect of his reconciliation with the Southern leaders. They needed his help to prevent the Radicals, Seward, Chase and Lincoln, from carrying the next election. He needed their help to compass the nomination. He decided without lowering his standard to win them back by the mere efficiency of his service. But the Southern leaders were not in search of a Northern master. They wanted servants in the high places of Government not less humble than the blacks who tilled their plantations. They instinctively knew that he was not and could not be such a servant. Rather than support him they would see Seward elected. He at least frankly avowed his hostility. If they elected Douglas and he declined to obey, their position would be awkward. If a sectional Republican were elected, they could secede and set up an independent Government.
On the 7th of May Davis spoke in support of a series of radical resolutions introduced by him on February 2nd, declaring that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature had power to impair the Constitutional right of any citizen of the United States to take his slave property into the common Territories and there hold it; that it was the duty of Congress to protect this right; and that the inhabitants had no power either by direct legislation or by their unfriendly attitude to exclude slavery until they formed a State Constitution. He spoke with great force in support of them. He ascribe the authorship of the pernicious heresy of squatter sovereignty to Cass, and threw doubt on the soundness of Douglas' Democracy by a long recital of what he regarded as unsound and heretical opinions and votes. He showed the complete failure of his distinctive policy in Kansas and the authoritative rejection of his principles by the Supreme Court. While the speech was courteous and dignified in manner, apparently delivered to elucidate the subject rather than to injure Douglas, it portrayed the wreck of his statesmanship and exposed the unsoundness of his Democracy with dangerous clearness while his candidacy was in the hands of the National Convention.
A week later he replied. Already the Charleston Convention, and with it his candidacy, had virtually gone to pieces because of Southern hostility to him and his principles. Davis was the head o the Southern junta, and the debate in the Senate was known to express in cold phrase, the passions that had rent the Convention and threatened to disrupt the party.
As Douglas, anxious but unfaltering, rose to speak, there was a hush in the crowded Chamber. After a sneering allusion to his controversy with Black, he announced his purpose to defend himself against the attack made by Davis. The speech occupied two days in its delivery and was a unique and artistic piece of senatorial politics. It was addressed less to the Senate than to the adjourned Charleston Convention. He exhaustively proved the soundness of Democracy and repelled the charge of heresy by rehearsing the history of Democratic Conventions and platforms since 1848, quoting the declarations of the party and its leaders in Convention, on the platform and through the press.
Cass, he said, the author of the now deadly doctrine of popular sovereignty, was nominated in 1848. The Compromise of 1850 embodied that principle. The Kansas-Nebraska struggle was settled by expressly adopting it. The Cincinnati platform, on which all Democrats had stood for four years, distinctly affirmed it. The Charleston Convention, within a few days, had reaffirmed it. His own speeches showed that he had adhered to it constantly from the beginning of his career. The change was not in him but in the Southern wing of the party. He protested that he did not desire the nomination and only permitted his name to be used that he might be vindicated against the presumptuous efforts of a little coterie to cast doubt upon his Democracy and their attempt to proscribe him as a heretic might be rebuked.
The most hostile critic must feel some sympathy for him in his new and indefensible position. His now heretical opinions had but recently borne the authentic stamp of Democracy. His party, following its real sentiments and the judicial interpretation of the Constitution, had silently abandoned its old creed to which he still clung with tenacity and ardor.
Davis, answering, asked him the blunt question, whether, if elected President, he would sign a bill to protect slave property in States, Territories, or the District of Columbia. He declined to answer suggesting the impropriety of declaring in advance what he would do if elected.
Congress adjourned on June 25th.
Chapter XVIII. A Noontide Eclipse.
While events in Washington in the spring of 1860 were full of historic interest, greater and more memorable events were occurring in Charleston. The Democratic Convention met in that city on April 23rd, which brought to the surface a state of feeling at the South that had long been suspected but not certainly known.
There was but one prominent candidate in the field. Douglas was incomparably the most eminent Democratic statesman of the time. According to the settled custom of the party, the South, which did not ask the Presidency itself, should have supported him. But the Southern delegates had resolved that in no event should he be nominated on any platform.
He had a clear majority of the Convention. But the Democrats, though still wearing a common badge, now constituted two distinct and antagonistic parties, held together not so much by common beliefs as by habits, traditions and sentimental attachment to an old and venerable name. The Northern Democrats were wholly estranged from those of the South. The two sections of the party quarreled about the platform; yet the Southerners cared little about that matter if they could name the candidate. They did not demand a Southern man, for he could not be elected. They wanted a "Northern man with Southern principles," like Pierce or Buchanan. Of all living men the dexterous and domineering Douglas least suited their demands. He was probably the only man who could have carried a large enough Northern vote to be elected. But they could not forget that his popularity at the North was, in part, the result of his great battle against the South which had caused their disastrous defeat.
The Northern delegates insisted on merely approving the Cincinnati platform, while the Southern delegates, who hoped to render Douglas' candidacy impossible, insisted on radical pro-slavery declarations and a denial of all right of the people of a Territory to prevent the holding of slaves. After a fierce struggle the Northern platform was adopted by a small majority. Immediately the delegates from Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Arkansas and three-fourths of that from Georgia refused to abide by it and withdrew.
The seceders organized another Convention, adopted the radical platform which had been rejected and adjourned to meet at Richmond on the 11th of June.
The regular Convention, meanwhile, found itself unable to do anything. The settled rule required a vote of two-thirds of all the delegates to select a candidate. The chairman ruled that in order to be nominated Douglas must have two-thirds of all the delegates elected, notwithstanding the secession. This required 202 votes. He had but 152 and the other 50 were not to be had. On May 3rd, after 57 ballots, the Convention adjourned to meet at Baltimore on June 18th. Davis, Toombs and the other leaders of the Southern junta in Congress issued an address approving the course of the seceders at Charleston, advising them to take no action at Richmond, but to await the result of the Baltimore Convention and expressing the conviction that, if fair concessions were not made to the South, other delegations would join them.
They accordingly came to Baltimore and demanded their seats in that Convention. But some of the States had elected new delegations which claimed them. For days confusion prevailed. Douglas sent two messages suggesting that his candidacy be dropped. But there were suppressed by his friends, who inexorably demanded his nomination. Five more States withdrew and the chairman resigned and joined the seceders. The Convention reorganized itself and proceeded to ballot. Douglas received all but thirteen votes; less, however, than the required two-thirds of all the delegates elected. But a resolution was passed declaring him nominated on the ground that he had received the votes of two-thirds of all delegates present. Senator Fitzpatrick of Alabama was nominated for Vice-President and the Convention adjourned. He declined and the Committee placed Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia in his place.
The seceders, joined by the recent recruits, held their Convention in Baltimore on the 28th of June and nominated John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky for President and Joseph Lane of Oregon for Vice-President.
This did not bring about a new condition, but revealed one which had existed for many years. The South was technically right in it demand that the Convention declare itself explicitly in favor of the honest and faithful maintenance of its constitutional rights in the Territories. These rights had been vehemently denied by the Republicans, but triumphantly established on a solid basis by the decision of the Supreme Court. Douglas had quibbled over the decision and explained it away until it seemed doubtful whether it in fact settled anything. The platform adopted by his supporters in the Convention recited the differences of opinion among Democrats as to the exact limits of the powers of the territorial legislature and those of Congress and referred the question again to the Court with a pledge to abide by its decision. They seemed to forget that the whole question had already been decided in the most sweeping terms in favor of the extreme Southern demands. It is not impossible that, had the South consented tot his vague and disingenuous platform and vigorously supported Douglas, he might have been elected. But "the South was implacable towards him and deliberately resolved to accept defeat rather than secure a victory under his lead."
The Republicans, meanwhile, had held their memorable Convention at Chicago, where, on May 18th, Lincoln had been nominated. When the news arrived in Washington, it made a great stir. The Republican Senators and Members gathered around Douglas to hear his judgement of the new statesman who had risen in the West.
"Gentlemen," he said, " you have nominated a very able and a very honest man."
On the adjournment of Congress, disregarding the decorous custom of seventy years, he entered the campaign, making speeches in his own behalf. He knew from the outset that with only a fraction of his party at his back, his chances of election were slight. But he fought on fiercely, partly from temperament and partly from conviction that he ought, if possible, to prevent Lincoln's election. Besides, there was a shadowy possibility of an election by the House of Representatives. At times his old Democratic enthusiasm returned. He told one audience that had his party given him undivided support he would have carried every State in the Union against Lincoln, except two.
He was sincerely alarmed for the safety of the Union in case of Lincoln's election, which he believed probable. He urged upon the South the duty of submitting to the result whatever it might be. At Norfolk, Virginia, he was asked whether, if Lincoln was elected, the Southern States would be justified in seceding from the Union?
To this he said, "I answer emphatically, No! The election of a man to the Presidency * * * in conformity with the Constitution * * * would not justify any attempt at dissolving this glorious Confederacy."
He further told them that if Lincoln were elected he would aid him to the extent of his power in maintaining the supremacy of the laws against all resistance to them from whatever quarter, and that it would be the President's duty to treat all attempts to break up the Union as Jackson treated the nullifiers in 1832. His candidacy was obviously hopeless. He exerted himself to avert the coming storm. Lincoln received one million eight hundred and sixty-seven thousand votes, Douglas one million two hundred and ninety-one thousand, and Brekenridge eight hundred and fifty thousand. Of the three hundred and three electoral votes Douglas received but twelve. Lincoln had an electoral majority over all opposing candidates.
On the 13th of November, South Carolina called a Convention to consider the dangers incident to her position in the Federal Union which, on December 20th, unanimously adopted an ordinance of secession. Three weeks later Mississippi declared herself out of the Union and was promptly followed by Florida, Alabama and Georgia. By the 20th of May eleven States had seceded. The President looked on it as a lawsuit between the States and exhausted his very respectable legal learning and ingenuity in proving that he had no power to raise his hand in defense of the country. It may be that the lawyer, with his quiddits and quillets, had survived the man. It may be that he had so long breathed the atmosphere of treason in the Cabinet counsels that he was tinctured with the widely prevalent pestilence. It is much more likely that the timorous old man, finding his term of office ending amid universal ruin, his friends and masters rushing into mad rebellion against his Government, weakly adopted that famous sentiment of the French King: "It will outlast my time."
Congress met on the third of December. In his message the President charged the entire trouble to the aggressive anti-slavery activity of the North, which had at last driven the South to open rebellion. He protested that he was powerless to act and referred the whole matter to Congress. Three of the Cabinet were serving the enemy and many seats in the House and Senate were held by unblushing traitors. The forts in Charleston harbor were besieged by South Carolina. The Government at first dared not and later could not relieve them.
Congress, if not as completely palsied as the President, was without remedy for the fearful evils of the time. Besides its quota of positive traitors, many of its members were infected with the mild, moonshiny political philosophy which had been currently in Washington for a quarter of a century. Many were about to retire to private life, and, like Buchanan, thought the Government would outlast their time. A famous Senate Committee of Thirteen, and a corresponding House Committee of Thirty-three, were appointed to consider the state of the Nation; both of which toiled much and accomplished nothing.
The Committee of Thirteen reported late in December that it was unable to agree, and on January 3rd Douglas addressed the Senate upon this report. He reviewed at great length the history of slavery legislation and drew from it all the conclusion that the trouble had arisen from unwarrantable interference in the local affairs of the Territories, and that, had popular sovereignty been given a chance it would have solved the problem long since and would do it yet if fairly tried. He ascribed the trouble to the pernicious agitation of the Republicans, and recalled Lincoln's most radical anti-slavery utterances in the famous campaign of 1858. He assured the people of the South that Lincoln would be powerless to hurt them if they remained in the Union, for there would be a majority against him in both the Houses of Congress. He denied utterly the right of South Carolina to secede and repudiate its constitutional duties, and insisted on the right of the Federal Government to enforce the law in all of the States. Yet, while there was a ray of hope, war must not be resorted to.
"In my opinion," he continued, "war is disunion, certain, inevitable, and irrevocable. * * * We have reached a point where disunion is inevitable unless some compromise, founded upon mutual concession, can be made. I prefer compromise to war. I prefer concession to a dissolution of the Union."
He asked the Republicans to consent to the reestablishment of the Missouri Compromise line, which he had swept away six years before amid their earnest protestations. He also proposed to establish popular sovereignty by constitutional amendment, such sovereignty to begin when a Territory had 50,000 inhabitants, and, by another amendment, to prohibit future acquisition of territory without a concurrent vote of two-thirds of each House of Congress. His purpose, he said, was not to settle the slavery question, but to expel slavery agitation from the arena of Federal politics forever.
This was his last important speech in the Senate. It was delivered under circumstances of awful solemnity. He seemed not deeply impressed with the gravity of the situation and was still interested in it chiefly as a party problem. He did not expect the baptism of blood that followed, but cheerfully looked forward to compromise and reconciliation. The Northern Democrats might yet rescue the country by mediating a truce between radical Republicans and radical Southern Democrats. In the present state of affairs who, but himself, the chief of these neutrals, could lead this great movement? His mental habits were those of the politician. He saw all event primarily in their relation to party tactics. Now that the earth began to rock beneath his feet, he suspected that it was only a theatrical earthquake and prepared to seize upon every advantage that might be gathered out of the confusion. He could not comprehend the deep and unappeasable passions that rent the Nation. The grim earnestness of his fellow-countrymen was as inconceivable to him as the demoniac enthusiasm of the great Apostle was to the scoffing Athenians who heard him on the Hill of Mars. But, as the great tragedy deepened and darkened, he quit his political speculations and began to think, not of the success of his party, but of the possibility of saving the Union from imminent wreck.
He returned to Illinois and addressed the legislature, urging energetic support of the war, and on May 1st was welcomed back to Chicago by an immense assembly of all parties. He was escorted to the great hall in which Lincoln had been nominated and there addressed the people. He spoke not as a politician but as a generous patriot. He denounced in unmeasured terms the Southern conspiracy which had resulted in secession and now had ripened into open and bloody rebellion. He saw the treason of the South no longer as a mere element in an interesting political game, but as the blackest of human crimes and an awful menace to the life of the Republic.
"There are only two sides to the question," he said. "Every man must be for the United States or against it. There can be no neutrals in this war; only patriots or traitors. * * * It is a sad task to discuss questions so fearful as civil war; but sad as it is, bloody and disastrous as I expect it will be, I express it as my conviction before God that it is the duty of every American citizen to rally around the flag of his country."
Not long after his return home he was stricken with serious sickness. The disease was not of such a character that it was expected to prove fatal, but the highest medical skill and most tender nursing were unavailing. The truth was, although unsuspected, that his vital energies were completely exhausted by the enormous labors and deep agitations of the past ten years. He had just passed his 48th birthday but was already gray and prematurely old. He had dwelt amid the tempest for twenty years and had felt more of severe strain than most men who had seen the Psalmist's three score years and ten. When told that his end was near, and asked what message he would send to his boys:
"Tell them," he said, "to obey the laws and support the Constitution of the United States."
On the morning of June 3rd he died. His remains lie buried in Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan, a spot fitly chosen as the last resting place of this most ceaselessly active and inexhaustibly resourceful of American statesmen.
History has not been kind to Douglas. The farther we recede from events the more trivial seem the temporary circumstances which influence them and the clearer appear the changeless principles which ought to mold men's conduct. But to the eager, impetuous man of action, the temporary circumstances are apt to be of overmastering force. He was a practical man of action, whose course was generally guided by the accidental circumstances of the hour, rather than by fixed principles. His education was defective. He entered the great arena with little of either mental or moral culture. Yet, severely as we now judge him, he did not fall below the prevailing standard of political morals. His real sin was that he did not rise above the ethics of the times; that he remained deaf as an adder to the voices of the great reformers who sought to regenerate the age, and who were compelled to grapple with him in deadly struggle before they could gain footing on the stage. The time was out of joint and he felt no vocation to set it right. While his ethics has fared hard, his mental gifts have been over-estimated. The availability of all his resources, his overwhelming energy and marvelous efficiency among men of intellect, gave rise to the impression which still survives that he was a man of original genius. But of all his numerous speeches, heard or read by millions, not a sentence had enough vitality to survive even one generation. Though for ten years of stormy agitation he was the most commanding figure in our public life and wielded power of which Presidents and Cabinets stood in awe, the things for which he is chiefly remembered are his unfortunate doctrine of popular sovereignty and the resistless power with which he defended his most dubious relation to the question of slavery.
His powerful influence upon the overshadowing question of the times, his restless activity in shaping the course of great political events, fast drifting into darkest tragedy, have obscured his work in less conspicuous fields. While it does not come within the scope of this work to do more than portray his relation to the great national tragedy which was slowly evolving during the entire period of his political life, it should not be forgotten that his activity covered the whole field of legislation and that no man responded more generously or efficiently to the countless demands upon time and energy which so greatly burden the American statesman.
It is pleasant to find a Lieutenant General of the United States army in his old age and retirement recalling a visit in his boyhood to Washington, to seek redress of some West Point grievance, and how the only man he could find who had the leisure enough to effectively interview the Secretary of War on his behalf was Douglas.
It is sufficient for our purposes to say that for thirteen years he had practical control of all legislation affecting the Western Territories, that he drafted the bills establishing territorial governments for Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Utah, New Mexico and Washington and prepared the acts for the admission of Wisconsin, California, Minnesota and Oregon. He secured for his State an enormous grant of public land, which resulted in the building of the Illinois Central Railroad. He warmly advocated the building of a railway to the Pacific. He consistently favored the most liberal appropriations for internal improvements, and, with that provincial patriotism and jealousy of Old World interference which was fashionable fifty years ago, vigorously opposed the Clayton-Bulwer treaty as a practical annulment of the Monroe doctrine.
It is not to be set down in his list of sins that he failed to bridge over the widening chasm between the North and the South; but it must be charged to him as a mental defect that he hopelessly failed to comprehend the significance of the great movements which he seemed to lead, that in the keenness of his interest in the evolutions of political strategy he failed to discern the symptoms of coming revolution.
When the storm that had been brewing before his eyes for ten years broke upon the country it took him by surprise. The ardor of his temperament, the eagerness of his ambition, make his conduct at times painfully resemble that of the selfish demagogue. But the range of his vision was small. He erred less from corruption of the heart than from deficiency of the mind. But what statesman of note during those strange and portentous years preceding the war could safely expose his speech and conduct to the searchlight of criticism? The wisest walked in darkness and stumbled often. It was not the fate of Douglas to see the mists amid which he had groped swept away by the hurricane of war.
What he would have done had his life been protracted ten year longer, is subject of interesting speculation. By temperament and habit he belonged to the preceding generation and it is difficult to conceive him working in harmony with the fiery and unyielding Puritans who succeeded. He loved the Union heartily and hated secession. He would have supported Lincoln in the great crisis. In the regenerated America, which rose from the fiery baptisms of the war, with its new ideal, its new hopes, its new convictions and deeper earnestness, he would probably have found himself sadly out of place. The epoch of history to which he belonged was closed. Young as he was, he had outlived his historic era and there is a dramatic fitness in the ending of his career at this time.