America’s Journey: Lincoln and Douglas

Lincoln and Douglas

The last politician who could walk both sides of the street inside the Democracy was none other than Stephen A. Douglas. And it was Abraham Lincoln — clever, long-headed, calculating Abraham Lincoln – who stopped him. Lincoln, as we shall see, was a popular and successful lawyer, well known throughout the state of Illinois. Brought out of political retirement by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the birth of the Republican Party in 1854, he was a political power in the state, but was relatively unknown elsewhere in the North. The campaign’s seven Lincoln-Douglas debates were printed in the newspapers and were carefully followed throughout the nation, much as, a century later, the televised Nixon-Kennedy debate was followed. The 1858 Senate campaign against Douglas made Lincoln’s reputation, because those who didn’t know him expected him to be chewed up by “the little giant.” When that didn’t happen – when in fact Lincoln more than held his own – the North’s anti-slavery men saw that they had a new champion. And then events made him president, as we have seen – but it was the contest with Douglas that displayed Lincoln’s strengths to the national audience.

And it was the Freeport Doctrine, which Douglas set forth in answer to one of Lincoln’s questions, that doomed his 1860 presidential campaign in advance. To understand why, you have to know about the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, handed down the previous year, in which, in a 7–2 decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court held that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery even in the federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States. (The ruling also held that nonwhites could not be citizens, regardless whether they were free or slave, but that particular injustice is not the thread we are pursuing here.) To opponents of slavery, this looked like one more piece of a conspiracy to remove all constitutional and legal barriers against the expansion of slavery. It raised the specter of slavery being legalized everywhere, and thus spreading to the free states.

So, in the second debate, in Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln forced Douglas to commit himself on the question by asking, “Can the people of a Territory in any lawful way, against the wishes of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State constitution?”

Douglas answered: “It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations. Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature; and if the people are opposed to slavery, they will elect representatives to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst. If, on the contrary, they are for it, their legislation will favor its extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a Slave Territory or a Free Territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska bill.”

With that answer, which may have been sincere, Douglas tried to square the circle. Had he answered “no,” he would have alienated the anti-slavery men of the North. But he didn’t dare answer “yes” – give the answer his presidential backers in the South wanted to hear – because he was too well aware that he could lose his Senate seat if he did. So he saved his seat, probably thinking he’d weasel his way out of his words in the next year or so. Rejecting the decision, he would alienate Southerners. So, he tried to wiggle through by delivering what people were soon calling the Freeport Doctrine.

And with his answer to Mr. Lincoln’s question, Douglas’ chances of getting the nomination went glimmering, because the Southerners weren’t ever going to trust him. They were ready to keep using him in the Senate, and they were willing to elect him president if they had to, but when he said the people of a territory could prohibit slavery from entering, Southern fire-eaters would have nothing more to do with him. It didn’t matter why he said it, nor how he qualified his statement, or even if he meant what he said. By this time the supposed right to expand slavery into new territories had been made into a dogma. Douglas might come into the national convention with a majority of delegates, but with the fire-eaters opposed to him, there was no way he could assemble the two-thirds vote then required. His answer in Freeport marked the beginning of the end for him. Mr. Lincoln blew it all up before John Brown, and the only people who noticed were the politicians, who weren’t going to say it in public. But probably it was only a matter of time. The people in the north with the money wanted their way, too. Sooner or later the Democracy was going to have to choose, when the ground of compromise ran out.


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