Douglas Defends Himself, Part Four

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas returned to history, reminding the Senate that he stood for the Missouri Compromise in 1848. He kept faith with the sacred pact written in its text and in the hearts and minds of Americans. Who stood against it then? Who broke faith? David Wilmot and the free soilers. Now these hypocrites indicted him for their own sins. But Douglas had changed his position. He knew it. Salmon P. Chase knew it. He could not get around the fact that F Street, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon twisted his arm and made him change from leaving the Missouri Compromise untouched to tearing it down. By accusing them of hypocrisy, he opened himself up to the same charge. Why had the Little Giant gone from the man who accepted the Missouri Compromise to the man who would demolish it?

Proslavery men made him, but Douglas couldn’t say that. He also couldn’t go on about how principled a stand he had and then admit that he just didn’t much care about slavery one way or the other. So he said this:

I do not like, I never did like, the system of legislation on our part, by which a geographical line, in violation of the laws of nature, and climate, and soil, and of the laws of God, should be run to establish institutions for a people; yet, out of a regard for the peace and quiet of the country, out of respect for past pledges, and out of a desire to adhere faithfully to all compromises, I sustained the Missouri compromise so long as it was in force, and advocated its extension to the Pacific. Now, when that has been abandoned, when it has been superseded, when a great principle of self-government has been substituted for it, I choose to cling to that principle, and abide in good faith, not only by the letter, but by the spirit of the last compromise.

Douglas wants to have it at least three ways here. First, he wants to insist that he repeals nothing not already repealed in 1850. Nobody, least of all Stephen Douglas, really believed that but it gave him some political cover. Second, he wants to cast himself as the apostle of a sacred constitutional faith. He kept the Compromise, even when the abolitionists did not, and so you could trust him now. Third, while he kept that old faith he knew in his heart that the nation could do better and, in fact, actually had. Slavery bans did not really ban slavery, but unofficial popular sovereignty really did. American democracy, disinterested and pious, read the verdict of nature and ordained slavery where it said, freedom where it did not. He claimed simultaneously the mantle of a man of decision and conviction, and that of a passive transmitter of natural law. How could anyone disagree?

Dirty abolitionists dared to, and Douglas made scant distinction between diehard abolitionists and free soil men. Like southern radicals, he saw the two as one and the same and the author of all his sorrows…or at least all of those he could talk about in the Senate when he needed the votes of the other authors of his sorrows:

This tornado has been raised by Abolitionists, and Abolitionists alone. they have made an impression upon the public mind in the way in which I have mentioned, by falsification of the law and the facts; and this whole organization against the compromise measures of 1850 is an Abolition movement. I presume they had some hope of getting a few tender-footed Democrats into their plot; and, acting on what they supposed they might do, they sent forth publicly to the world the falsehood that their address was signed by the Senators and a majority of the Representatives of the State of Ohio; but when we come to examine the signatures, we find no one Whig there, no one Democrat there; none but pure, unmitigated, unadulterated Abolitionists.

They did call it the Appeal of the Independent Democrats, Stephen. But here Douglas reveals one of his major fears. By 1854, only the Democracy remained as much of a national institution. It had withered in the North and swelled in the South, which made life much harder for men like Douglas, but the party’s Yankee wing had yet to curl up and go home like the southern, especially deep southern, Whigs largely had. If the Union ailed, only the Democracy could fix it. Douglas believed that and so thought party unity vital. Then Chase the schismatic came along and threatened to tear it apart. An ex-Democrat himself, the Ohio Free Soiler staked out a platform and called for Democrats to desert the Democracy. To Douglas, this must have looked the same as a fire-eater screaming for secession did.

Given both how the decade to date had played out, starting with Douglas masterminding of the Armistice, and how it would continue, the Little Giant had a point. He may have been too late already, though. Southerners already formed the strongest bloc in his own party, which he knew well enough from how they forced him to repeal the Missouri Compromise. The Democracy did not lean as far South as Whiggery or Free Soil leaned North, but it did lean far enough to help its own decline outside of the slave states. That trend only stood to reinforce itself and accelerate with time.

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