Douglas Resurgent

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Neither Douglas’ standard (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) story about how everybody secretly, without noticing it themselves, repealed the Missouri Compromise happily back in 1850, nor his performance at the North Market Hall endeared him to Chicago or to most anybody else in the North. He handled the situation very poorly, but given his druthers would have avoided it all. F Street, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon had him over a barrel. The Little Giant could have told them what he did the angry mob in Chicago, but doing that probably would not only have once again killed his Nebraska bill and also put paid to any other legislation he wanted to get through the Senate. Douglas made the deal and stuck by it. Given he had the aforementioned angry mob jeering and heckling him, thousands strong, one can understand how he lost his composure.

Some in Chicago at least appreciated Douglas’ difficulty. Allen Nevins quotes the Chicago Journal reporting the meeting:

We regret very much that Mr. Douglas was not suffered to proceed without interruption and conclude what he had to say upon the subject, but at the same time do not hold him blameless in the premises. He came among an excited constituency, who felt that he had deeply wronged them, to speak in self-vindication, but at the very outset of his remarks assailed their intelligence, and charged them indiscriminately with not having read the Nebraska Bill, and being ignorant of its provisions. Instead of asking them to “hear him for his cause, and be silent that they might hear” he constantly appealed to the immense throng for answers to the interrogatories propounded, boasted of being an older resident of the State than a majority of the meeting, and wound up with charging those who had come in obedience to his summons to hear him with being an ungovernable mob. We submit to the friends of Senator Douglas whether such a course was calculated or intended to secure for him a respectful hearing. We ask any candid reader whether Senator Douglas is not himself accountable for fanning excitement which he knew existed to a fury which drove him from the stand?

Douglas took the lesson. He toured Illinois, aiming for more southerly locales less incensed over slavery’s potential expansion. He sent handbills ahead of himself, arranged a band, and generally tried to make the affair more entertaining rather than just a lecture from on high. Illinois did not swing easily. Douglas still saw himself burned in effigy and faced hostile crowds. But he controlled his anger and resentment. He stopped attacking the audience, at least directly, and instead denounced abolitionists, Know-Nothings, and “Nigger-lovers.”

The Illinois Democracy came around. Its papers began again to toe the Douglas line and support the party orthodoxy. They knew who paid their bills, but it helped that Douglas had no one touring Illinois arguing the anti-Nebraska side. He stood up, gave his version, and moved on. One could get the idea that even if one had strong private doubts, the political class in general had some kind of consensus on Douglas’ lines and anti-Nebraska opinion belonged on the nutty fringe with the abolitionists. Gradually Douglas got bigger and friendlier crowds.

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

But events conspired against Douglas’ unchallenged rhetorical performance. In Springfield, an obscure one-term ex-House member and old-time Whig who had quit politics found himself drawn back in. He would not just stand by and let Missouri Compromise go quietly into that good night. Nor would he let Douglas get away with framing the discussion all by himself.

On October 3, Douglas came to Springfield and delivered his now standard speech in the well of the state House. On October 4, Abraham Lincoln occupied the same space, faced the same audience, and made the opposite case. We don’t know precisely what Lincoln said, as we have only newspaper reports of the content, but people came to hear him. Lincoln had friends enough in Springfield that an advertising campaign promoted his appearance. It must have gone over well, because on October 16, Lincoln and Douglas shared the stage and he repeated the same points in expanded form.

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