On Douglas’ Concessions and Convictions

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

I have some more to say about Douglas’ defense of himself, but before I do that I want to step back for a moment and make a point in the name of fairness. I have probably not emphasized enough that, while Stephen Douglas desperately wanted a Nebraska territorial bill he did not personally prefer the version he ended up with. He would take it; he wanted the bill that badly. But each concession took him further from his first preference. One does not, after all, need to make round after round of concessions to others in order to bring a bill closer to what one wanted in the first place. One concedes some things that one does not want, or at least doesn’t care about, to get others which one does want.

Douglas, as late as March of 1853, wanted a free Nebraska. He understood the Missouri Compromise to apply unchanged and unchallenged by any legislation between 1820 and 1853, the Armistice measures included. Unlike Atchison, Calhoun, or the rest of the proslavery extremists, the Little Giant did not build up a long record of griping about the Missouri Compromise. That did not make him an angel. Allen Nevins describes his record on the subject in Ordeal of the Union:

Beyond a doubt [Douglas] partly underestimated the force of Northern indignation, and partly despised it whatever its intensity.

He underestimated it because, feeling himself no moral repugnance to slavery, he could not imagine other men’s anger at the idea of its admission to a domain hitherto inviolate. His biographers have found in all his speeches and letters only one or two statements intimating a dislike of slavery. A hundred can be found which show that, as he once said, he did not care whether it was voted up or down. He remarked on one occasion: “Slavery may be very essential in one climate, and totally useless in another. If i were a citizen of Louisiana, I would vote for retaining and maintaining slavery, because I believe the good of that people would require it.” He said again: “We in Illinois tried slavery while we were a Territory, and found it was not profitable; and hence we turned philanthropists and abolished it.” And on still another occasion: “Whenever a territory has a climate, soil, and productions making it the interest of the inhabitants to encourage slave property, they will pass a slave code and give it encouragement. Whenever the climate, soil, and productions preclude the possibility of slavery being profitable, they will not permit it. You come right back to the principle of dollars and cents.”

Those hunting for humanitarian sentiment here will come home empty-handed. Douglas, like virtually all white American men of his time, viewed black people as strictly inferior to whites. To him, that meant no sensible fuss could come from how whites chose to dispose of them and their enslavement did not present any difficulties to the principles of white republicanism. Self government and popular sovereignty belonged to white men, period. He believed passionately in those causes, but only within those limits. Though our sympathies with the cause of the free soil men and abolitionists can make it hard to admit, most of them probably agreed. Slavery, to them, threatened white republicanism and white futures. That it subjected black people to incredible cruelty moved rather few white Americans indeed.

All that said, the same indifference to slavery that led Douglas to accept concessions he knew would put him through political difficulties and cause great controversy also meant he didn’t go out of his way, contra Chase, to expand the institution. He didn’t want his railroad promotions and white settlement plans bound up in slavery, but F Street insisted. Then Archibald Dixon and Phillip Phillips made them demand more and Douglas, wanting the bill and not caring about the slavery, had to follow them out on increasingly thin ice.

Then the Little Giant had to stand up in the Senate and defend all of this. I let the thread of his defense against Chase and the Appeal drop to avoid a series of confusing point-counterpoint posts, but intend to return to it. Douglas did defend himself and he certainly expressed some genuine convictions of his along the way, but he also had to defend words he did not write as his own and concessions he did not welcome as sensible, even moderate measures. And Chase impugned his character, which got his blood up and made it personal.

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