Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Five

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4. Full text.)

In tracing the history of slavery restrictions up through the annexation of Texas in 1845, nine years before he spoke at Peoria, Lincoln told the story of how the Congress had banned the institution from various territories without controversy. But that story only goes so far on its own. Calhoun could have come out of his grave and told him that each and every one of those restrictions harmed the South and spat on southern rights. The South agreed to them, but erred in doing so. Others still living would go just as far, perhaps even farther.

Anybody can manufacture a historical consensus by ignoring its dissenters, a practice almost always in fashion in American politics. Certain sorts of people, who agree with the speaker, always represent real America. The others want un-American things. If you follow contemporary politics for very long, you’ll recognize the argument. Much the same thing played out with the Know-Nothings, who proclaimed real America Protestant and un-Irish. Their opponents could and did say the same sort of things about them. Abolitionists and antislavery men told the same story about the Slave Power. Southerners told it about abolitionists.

But one can mitigate against that kind of argument and Lincoln had one of the best. He quoted a prominent politician on the Missouri Compromise’s success and greatness:

The Missouri Compromise had been in practical operation for about a quarter fo a century, and had received the sanction and approbation of men of all parties in every section of the Union. It had allayed all sectional jealousies and irritations growing out of this vexed question, and harmonized and tranquilized the whole country. It had given to Henry Clay, as its prominent champion, the proud sobriquet of “Great Pacificator” and by that title and for that service, his political friends had repeatedly appealed to the people to rally under his standard, as a presidential candidate, as the man who had exhibited the patriotism and the power to suppress, an unholy and treasonable agitation, and preserve the Union. He was not aware that any man or any party from any section of the Union, had ever urged as an objection to Mr. Clay, that he was the great champion of the Missouri Compromise. On the contrary, the effort was made by the opponents of Mr. Clay, to prove that he was not entitled to the exclusive merit of that great patriotic measure, and that the honor was equally due to others as well as to him, for securing its adoption-that it had its origins in the hearts of all patriotic men, who desire to preserve and perpetuate the blessings of our glorious Union-an origin akin that of the constitution of the United States, conceived in the same spirit of fraternal affection, and calculated to remove forever, the only danger, which had seemed to threaten, at some distant day, to sever the social bond of union. All the evidences of public opinion at that day, seemed to indicate that this Compromise had been canonized in the hearts of the American people, as a sacred thing which no ruthless hand would ever be reckless enough to disturb.

The Compromise stood sacred, canonized by people of all sections and parties. None would ever dare undo it. None would risk so much for so little, with such reckless disregard for the consequences. None would so ruthlessly it aside, indifferent to the powerful feelings in its favor. None except Stephen Douglas.

Who said so? Why, no one less than Stephen Douglas himself.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Four

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3. Full text.)

Lincoln established the basic facts of the Missouri Compromise and went on a tour of early regulation of slavery by the Congress, all the way back to the Confederation. But Lincoln had spoken for only two sections of the country: the Northwest where he stood and the Louisiana Purchase. The country had more land than that to exclude or include slavery on. In discussing that he reveals an interesting wrinkle in the nation’s territorial expansion:

Texas principally south of the line, and West of Arkansas; though originally within the purchase from France, had, in 1819, been traded off to Spain, in our treaty for the acquisition of Florida. It had thus become a part of Mexico. Mexico revolutionized and became independent of Spain. American citizens began settling rapidly, with their slaves in the southern part of Texas.

I had to read that a few times and do some checking before I fully understood it. Texas a part of the Louisiana Purchase? Not in my history textbook!

But at the time, the US claimed that it had bought at least large sections of Texas. Nobody making the claims knew where the Louisiana Purchase really ended. It began at the Mississippi River, but went off into blank sections of the map inhabited only by little-known Indians and, somewhere far off west, Spaniards. The French had not settled it anywhere in great numbers, except around New Orleans and St. Louis. Napoleon properly sold Thomas Jefferson the claim to the western half of the Mississippi watershed more than the land itself. That could, theoretically, include everything between the continental divide and the Gulf of Mexico. Spain had a competing claim in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which went down from the Oregon Country all the way to the Viceroyalty of New Grenada at roughly the northern border of Panama.

The parting Lincoln refers to happened in the Adams-Onís Treaty. It settled several longstanding territorial disputes with Spain, which insisted until then that its possession of Florida ran all the way to the Mississippi and that when Jefferson bought Louisiana, he bought only the city itself and a narrow band of territory around the river. The initial American claim put Louisiana’s western border at the Rio Grande, halfway through modern New Mexico, but the United States eventually opted for the Sabine River, the modern line between Louisiana and Texas, but Spain insisted on the Arroyo Hondo, now the Calcasieu River. The disputed territory, which both sides informally agreed to treat as neutral, drew settlers, squatters, and various criminal interests that caused some problems for both countries.

The provisions of the Adams-Onis Treaty. (Via Wikipedia)

The provisions of the Adams-Onis Treaty. (Via Wikipedia)

Over in Florida, the United States had a similar problem. Spanish authority did not reach very far on the ground. This made Florida a haven for Indians that liked to raid across the border and runaway slaves who could happily vanish into the wilderness. Andrew Jackson took that as an excuse to move an army across the border to fight the Seminoles and seized some Spanish forts along the way. Washington refused to disavow his actions or recall him, which put Spain in quite a bind at a time when it needed money, faced rebellions in its Latin American possessions, and had just come out of the very damaging Napoleonic Wars. Better to come to the table and cut its losses in exchange for some cash. So the sticky-fingered Americans got Florida and the Sabine River boundary. Spain threw in its claims to the Oregon Country too. In exchange, the United States surrendered its nominal claims to Texas and agreed on a boundary that ceded some little-known land between the Arkansas and Red rivers west of 100° longitude to Spain.

Of course, Texas came back into the Union amid much controversy later on:

Soon they revolutionized against Mexico, and established an independent government of their own, adopting a constitution, with slavery, strongly resembling the constitutions of our slave states. By still another rapid move, Texas, claiming a boundary much further West, than when we parted with her in 1819, was brought back to the United States, and admitted into the Union as a slave state. There then was little or no settlement in the northern part of Texas, a considerable portion of which lay north of the Missouri line; and in the resolutions admitting her into the Union, the Missouri restriction was expressly extended westward across her territory. This was in 1845, only nine years ago.

See, Douglas? Even at that late date, we drew the Missouri Compromise line all over again. We drew it that way even if it meant cutting off a bit of a state, though with the proviso that the line would only enter legal force in the event that parts of Texas got divided off into new states.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Three

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 1 and 2full text.)

I somehow neglected in past posts about this early Lincoln-Douglas debate to list the most obvious reason the two came together for a mutual rhetorical skinning: they had elections coming up. Neither stood for office himself in 1854, but their appearances promoted their parties. Though taken up by the great issue of the moment, the appearances themselves fit comfortably into the normal practice of nineteenth century electioneering. They would do it again, this time with more personal stakes and to much greater fame, in 1858.

Lincoln began with a history of the Congress’ power to restrict slavery in the territories. Slaveholders assented to it. Such restrictions passed without tremendous rancor in the 1780s. No matter of sacred honor or imperiled rights then upset the ship of state. Why would one now? Douglas and the rest of the Nebraska men would have them believe that the Missouri Compromise must fall as a question of right and principle on which most Americans agreed, with an ancient pedigree…discovered only in the past year.

Making that case required more than reference to the Confederation Congress and the Northwest Ordinance, but Lincoln had more. The Northwest Ordinance only applied to the Northwest Territory. All the land in question belonged to the Louisiana Purchase, after all:

In 1803 we purchased what was then called Louisiana, of France. It included the now states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa; also the territory of Minnesota, and the present bone of contention, Kansas and Nebraska. Slavery already existed among the French at New Orleans; and, to some extent, at St. Louis. In 1812 Louisiana came into the Union as a slave state, without controversy. In 1818 or ’19, Missouri showed signs of a wish to come in with slavery. This was resisted by northern members of Congress; and thus began the first great slavery agitation in the nation. This controversy lasted several months, and became very angry and exciting; the House of Representatives voting steadily for the prohibition of slavery in Missouri, and the Senate voting as steadily against it. Threats of breaking up the Union were freely made; and the ablest public men of the day became seriously alarmed. At length a compromise was made, in which, like all compromises, both sides yielded something. It was a law passed on the 6th day of March, 1820, providing that Missouri might come into the Union with slavery, but that in all the remaining part of the territory purchased of France, which lies north of 36 degrees and 30 minutes north latitude, slavery should never be permitted. This provision of law, is the Missouri Compromise. In excluding slavery North of the line, the same language is employed as in the Ordinance of ’87. It directly applied to Iowa, Minnesota, and to the present bone of contention, Kansas and Nebraska. Whether there should or should not, be slavery south of that line, nothing was said in the law; but Arkansas constituted the principal remaining part, south of the line; and it has since been admitted as a slave state without serious controversy. More recently, Iowa, north of the line, came in as a free state without controversy.

There Lincoln drew a direct line between the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise. They even used the same slavery language, straight from Jefferson’s pen. The compromise did not please everyone, but few compromises do. The North gave up having a free Missouri. The South gave up having slave states to Missouri’s north or west. Nobody got up in arms when Arkansas came in as a slave state or when Iowa came in free.

For thirty years, the Missouri Compromise did its work and served the nation. Why must it suddenly fall? Furthermore, why must it fall in such a way that the South won all and conceded nothing while the North conceded everything and won nothing? “I win; you lose” hardly sounds like a compromise solution. It certainly does nothing to endear itself to the party on the losing end.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Two

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Part 1.)

Having declared himself a compromise, Union, Henry Clay-style old-time Whig, and before that given everyone a break to get supper, Lincoln moved on to the meat of the issue. In the KansasNebraska Act, Stephen Douglas repealed the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery north of the southern border of the state, except for within Missouri itself. The North promptly caught fire and rose up against the law. Lincoln spoke on behalf of those northerners who saw themselves betrayed and their future sold away by a dangerous cabal of slaveholders and their northern lackeys.

Nineteenth century politicians had to know their stuff. People expected them to display their education and erudition regularly. As the leading men of society, they needed to act the part. That inclined them to a rambling, digressing style with exhaustive references to history and to legal theorists. One might expect the famously unschooled Lincoln to come in at a disadvantage here, but he made up for his lack of formal schooling with voracious reading. He might have spent only one term in the House, but he could play with the big boys. So Lincoln began at the very beginning:

In order to [get?] a clear understanding of what the Missouri Compromise is, a short history of the preceding kindred subjects will perhaps be proper. When we established our independence, we did not own, or claim, the country to which this compromise applies. […]


These territories, together with the States themselves, constituted all the country over which the confederacy then claimed any sort of jurisdiction. We were then living under the Articles of Confederation, which were superceded by the Constitution several years afterwards. The question of ceding these territories to the general government was set on foot. Mr. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and otherwise a chief actor in the revolution; then a delegate in Congress; afterwards twice President; who was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history; a Virginian by birth and continued residence, and withal, a slave-holder; conceived the idea of taking that occasion, to prevent slavery ever going into the north-western territory. He prevailed on the Virginia Legislature to adopt his views, and to cede the territory, making the prohibition of slavery therein, a condition of the deed. Congress accepted the cession, with the condition; and in the first Ordinance (which the acts of Congress were then called) for the government of the territory, provided that slavery should never be permitted therein. This is the famed ordinance of ’87 so often spoken of. Thenceforward, for sixty-one years, and until in 1848, the last scrap of this territory came into the Union as the State of Wisconsin, all parties acted in quiet obedience to this ordinance. It is now what Jefferson foresaw and intended—the happy home of teeming millions of free, white, prosperous people, and no slave amongst them.

Lincoln skipped a few facts there and made one error, which he later admitted. Virginia’s cession of the Northwest Territory did not come with the condition that Congress allow no slavery there. Rather that provision comes from Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance. Lincoln then neglects that Jefferson originally wanted to apply the law to the whole of the territory west of the Appalachians, making it all forever free. Jefferson came close to doing it, but the vote he needed to put him over the top rested with a man home sick when the time came.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Instead Jefferson settled for half a loaf. He got his slavery ban over the territory northwest of the Ohio, but not the other quarter of the country. His system for organizing territories in preparation for statehood, however, did set a precedent widely followed in the subsequent decades. Congress generally copy and pasted the Northwest Ordinance, swapping geography as necessary, to each new stretch of land. That said, Congress also frequently neglected to copy and paste the slavery ban when doing so.

But, Jefferson’s failings aside, Lincoln already has one over on doctrinaire southerners, and their supposed tool Stephen Douglas:

Thus, with the author of the declaration of Independence, the policy of prohibiting slavery in new territory originated. Thus, away back of the constitution, in the pure fresh, free breath of the revolution, the State of Virginia, and the National congress put that policy in practice. Thus through sixty odd of the best years of the republic did that policy steadily work to its great and beneficent end. And thus, in those five states, and five millions of free, enterprising people, we have before us the rich fruits of this policy. But now new light breaks upon us. Now congress declares this ought never to have been; and the like of it, must never be again. The sacred right of self government is grossly violated by it! We even find some men, who drew their first breath, and every other breath of their lives, under this very restriction, now live in dread of absolute suffocation, if they should be restricted in the “sacred right” of taking slaves to Nebraska. That perfect liberty they sigh for—the liberty of making slaves of other people—Jefferson never thought of; their own father never thought of; they never thought of themselves, a year ago. How fortunate for them, they did not sooner become sensible of their great misery! Oh, how difficult it is to treat with respect, such assaults upon all we have ever really held sacred.

The South accepted slavery bans and territorial partitions. It had from virtually time immemorial. Now, at this late hour, suddenly it discovered that Congress had no power over slavery in the territories and that its rights demanded nothing less than the abolition of all such bans? And no slaveholder could countenance a policy established by … another slaveholder? Preposterous!

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part One

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

When Lincoln met Douglas at Peoria to debate the latter’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both men to some degree needed the appearance. For Douglas, the speaking tour gave him the chance to rebuild some of the bridges he burned in the Illinois Democracy with the law and his poor performance in Chicago. Prevailing over even an unremarkable figure like Lincoln who argued the other side would put a nice feather in his cap. Lincoln used his tour to reenter politics and sharing a stage with one of the most famous men in the nation, and certainly the most famous in Illinois, he boosted his profile. He could seal the deal with a great speech, and Lincoln had at least a good one in him.

After everyone had their supper and came back, the man from Springfield began not as an angry partisan but as a deeply moderate man. He knew that he had a large hostile audience. They came for Douglas and, in Lincoln’s own words, to see Douglas skin him. Lincoln set himself up as one of the last national Whigs. He had long taken Henry Clay, the party’s slaveholding, Missouri Compromise-authoring, Great Compromiser and sectional pacificator as his political hero. That Lincoln opened his remarks at Peoria in the same mold:

I do not propose to question the patriotism, or to assail the motives of any man, or class of men; but rather to strictly confine myself to the naked merits of the question.

I also wish to be no less than National in all the positions I may take; and whenever I take ground which others have thought, or may think, narrow, sectional and dangerous to the Union, I hope to give a reason, which will appear sufficient, at least to some, why I think differently.

Here Lincoln declares himself not Douglas’ enemy, or vituperative Salmon P. Chase come again, or even as a Northern man, but rather as an American first and foremost. He tells the audience that they should not see him as a bad guy, but rather simply a man who has principled disagreements about the wisdom of repealing the Missouri Compromise and so prefers to have it brought back. Lincoln doesn’t keep all of those promises, but his invocation of all things National underlines his deep belief in the curative and preservative power of the Union. If the nation had troubles, they could be fixed in the Union. That same Union safeguarded precious American republicanism in a world full of kings and tyrants eager to vanquish it.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Immediately thereafter, Lincoln sets out one of the essential distinctions of the antislavery movement, as opposed to the smaller abolitionist movement:

And, as this subject is no other, than part and parcel of the larger general question of domestic-slavery, I wish to MAKE and to KEEP the distinction between the EXISTING institution, and the EXTENSION of it, so broad, and so clear, that no honest man can misunderstand me, and no dishonest one, successfully misrepresent me.

Opposing slavery, even hating it, whether one hated it for the threat it posed to white freedom or for the wrongs done to black bodies and lives, did not necessarily mean that one wanted its immediate overthrow everywhere. No antislavery person would collapse in grief if it vanished tomorrow, but they sought the peculiar institution’s restriction. They wanted it confined to where it already existed, contained like the United States tried to contain communism in the Cold War. They had in mind that doing so would set it on the road to extinction, but going down that road would take at least a century and involve overcoming numerous and difficult obstacles.

They meant it too. Slaveholders might grumble that this all amounted to a PR campaign to insert secret abolitionists into the South, but the antislavery movement took seriously property rights, the established law on what Congress could and could not impose on states, and the problem of what to do with the freedpeople. They had some solutions, some of them horrifying to modern eyes, but all had problems and Lincoln, no less than any of the rest, grappled with them even at this early date.

Lincoln at Peoria

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

Stephen Douglas went on a tour of Illinois to rehabilitate himself after repealing the Missouri Compromise with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and winning so many more friends and admirers by telling the crowd at his own rally to go to hell. The Little Giant didn’t go for a walk of shame. He went around defending himself, eventually with success. It helped that when he got up on stage, Douglas had no one arguing the opposite case. In Springfield, a failed politician and successful lawyer named Abraham Lincoln got up the day after Douglas spoke did and rebutted him. We don’t have those remarks, dating to October 4, 1854. We do have the speech Lincoln gave at Peoria in October 16, where he did not just share space after the fact but actually shared the stage with the Little Giant. Considering that Lincoln (6’4″, 193 cm) had a good foot of height on the Little (5’4″, 163 cm) Giant, it must have been quite a contrast.

I don’t think you could have an event like this today. Douglas spoke for a solid three hours, without even a sound system. I can’t imagine what his throat felt like. He finished to six cheers and a band played. Then people called for Lincoln to have his turn. Lincoln rose and demurred:

I do not arise to speak now, if I can stipulate with the audience to meet me here at half past 6 or at 7 o’clock. It is now several minutes past five, and Judge Douglas has spoken over three hours. If you hear me at all, I wish you to hear me thro’. It will take me as long as it has taken him. That will carry us beyond eight o’clock at night. Now every one of you who can remain that long, can just as well get his supper, meet me at seven, and remain one hour or two later. The Judge has already informed you that he is to have an hour to reply to me. I doubt not but you have been a little surprised to learn that I have consented to give one of his high reputation and known ability, this advantage of me. Indeed, my consenting to it, though reluctant, was not wholly unselfish; for I suspected if it were understood, that the Judge was entirely done, you democrats would leave, and not hear me; but by giving him the close, I felt confident you would stay for the fun of hearing him skin me.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Politicians make cracks like that all the time, but I got a fair smile out of imagining that coming from the grave-voiced Lincoln of so many documentaries.

Lincoln illuminated a good point about period entertainment. I don’t think many contemporary Americans go to political events for the show. Those who do are probably serious news junkies or party diehards for the most part. Back in the nineteenth century, far more people went. You got to see a famous man like Douglas. You got flattery and to hear your foes cursed by men of eloquence. Nineteenth century Americans would come from far around for them, but also for far more obscure figures who would speak at length on far more esoteric topics that few among us would necessarily think of as fun. A good nineteenth century orator could make a healthy living just by touring and giving speeches. Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll did later on in the century. Many British authors did a tour or two of the United States. Three hours listening to someone talk might sound tedious to us. I don’t know if I could take three hours of my favorite comedians comfortably seated at home in front of a television. But they really did it. If they got bored, they could wander off for a while or make their own fun with heckling.

Seven hours, three for each man and then one for a rebuttal from Douglas, apparently asked too much. The crowd happily agreed to take the time to get a bite and take a break before hearing Lincoln. Doubtless some of them came back only to hear the tall, not very good-looking lawyer get his head handed to him by the Little Giant. They’d see the big oaf, who a later critic called a baboon, shown up and go home happy.

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.

“And you may go to hell!”

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas, fresh off repealing the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act and selling the Great Plains and the future of the nation over to slavery, returned home to Chicago. There he found the city set against him. The failure of a homstead bill, thanks to southern Senators, just hammered home to the entire Northwest that the Kansas-Nebraska act, despite opening the plains to everybody on paper, actually opened them to slavery. On top of that, Douglas stayed loyal to his Democratic principles and refused to make any concessions to the nativist hysteria sweeping the nation. He faced a party turned against itself and sought no new allies. The Little Giant had done what he had done. Seeing his home turned against him, he arranged a rally at North Market Hall on September 1, 1854.

Douglas avoided the usual venues, selecting a much smaller one. He skipped Chicago’s open parks and larger halls. The North Market Hall stood in the Irish section of Chicago and, underlining how much he loathed the Know-Nothings, he hired on Irish security to guard it. This all made it look very much like Douglas would stage a meeting for show, get a few resolutions passed in his favor, and take them as evidence that Chicago still loved him. Chicago at large smelled a rat and ugly rumors spread, not helped at all by Douglas man ranging out into surrounding counties to gin up a crowd. Those who grumbled about how Douglas must have a fair hearing…or else received back word that the Chicago Know-Nothings chose the latter. Prominent men did their duty in trying to discourage violence, then went on to say that Chicago should show its genuine feelings.

When the day came, rumors had Douglas with company of armed Irishmen. Sales of handguns emptied the stores. If they could not get into Douglas’ small hall, the Chicago Tribune advised the discontented to hold a larger meeting outside it. Douglas obliged, having a platform built outside the hall. Special trains hauled Douglas men in from elsewhere in Illinois to hear their hero speak…and add to the number of people not sizing him up for a rope, rail, or tar and feathers.

Douglas mounted the platform and told his audience, friendly and hostile alike, that they did not understand the Kansas-Nebraska act. Therefore, he would educate them. That went over well. The Little Giant continued, pointing out that they could not understand a bill they had not read and only his loyal paper had published it in Chicago. The crowd did not sit quiet, but rather interrupted him constantly with boos, hisses, groans, and laughter. Douglas went anyway, telling his usual story. Illinois actually, despite the evidence of their lying eyes, actually supported it. They loved popular sovereignty and out of deference to them and his own conscience, Douglas went over from geographic partition to it. After all, none of them supported admitting slave states south of the line…right? No, so they rejected it too and everyone could come together in a happy political family. Why did they curse him for doing as they wished?

For forty-five minutes, Douglas told his usual story. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) Then he drifted off script and started insulting the city of Chicago and its citizens for their impertinence. He traded barbs with the audience. He denounced the mob and its sympathetic papers. The Little Giant swore he would silence them or stay until morning. The crowd broke into a song that pledged no departure until sunrise. Douglas flew off the handle, damning Know-Nothings and refusing to take even reasonable questions. Finally he gave it up and, to the mob’s cheers, declared he would leave them.

Too little, too late. They had their chance to cheer Stephen Douglas before all that. The Little Giant donned his hat, waved his fist at the mob, and yelled a parting shot:

It is now Sunday morning; I’ll go to church and you may go to hell!

The Most Hated Man in the North

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Ultimately, the Know-Nothings could not master the anti-Nebraska reaction and turn it from an antislavery reaction into an anti-immigrant movement. Whatever hope they had of sidelining slavery through the fact that many antislavery voters also had nativist prejudices crashed hard into the central fact of southern politics: to succeed in the South, you must prove yourself reliably proslavery. Doing that meant sacrificing support in the North, even amongst true blue nativists. The combination went both ways. Furthermore, the Know-Nothings ran up against at least a minority of ex-Whig and barely still-Whig northerners looking for a new party who simply opposed nativism outright. Democrats, at least in the North and almost by definition, favored immigration and the Know-Nothings could not hope to win them over.

Those implacable Know-Nothing foes in the Democracy included Stephen Douglas, who the North might very well have hated above any other man in the summer of 1854. He expected to travel from Boston to Chicago by the light of his own effigies. Before Congress adjourned, he visited New York and could only get applause from the more shameless party sycophants. In Trenton, Douglas got outright boos. In Cleveland, they hung a Douglas effigy wearing a sign damning him, Doughfaces (Northern politicians thought to take orders from the South.), and Nebraska. Free Soilers equated him with Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot, just in case Salmon P. Chase calling him the Accomplished Architect of Ruin did not get the point across.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

If the Little Giant gained any perverse satisfaction from guessing rightly, Illinois may have taken it away. He came home to find almost all of Chicago against him. Devoted supporters did their best to sing his praises and celebrate Kansas-Nebraska but few listened. Only one Chicago paper would support Douglas. Most of the citizenry and clergy aligned against him. So Douglas decided he ought to have a mass meeting to show that, Nebraska or no Nebraska, Chicago loved him.

Douglas did not opt for the usual venues. Instead he would have his meeting in the Irish section of Chicago and his men sent out the word that he would have Irishmen on hand for security. He chose a hall that could hold only 1,200 or so people. All of this looked like a fake meeting set up to pass pro-Douglas resolutions while gangs of Irish thugs kept out most of Chicago. It inflamed Chicago’s Know-Nothings. If Douglas chose their enmity, and he had declared as much back on the Fourth of July in Philadelphia, then they would happily oblige.

Further complicating things, especially in the Northwest, after Kansas-Nebraska went through a homestead bill failed. The bill made it through the House back in March, promising that after five years of settling and cultivation, the mythic yeoman farmers out of Jefferson’s dreams could have 160 acres for free. Northerners saw their future in that. Yes, they had moved west without the help in the past. But this law would have opened the floodgates to great numbers of them. If the Nebraska bill opened the plains, then northern men could take them.

The southerners in the Senate saw the future in the homestead bill too. Northern men would flood across the fertile plains and close them to slavery. Popular sovereignty would take away their newest triumph. More than that, poor farmers would flood out of the South and take their House seats North with them. The North already dominated the House and it wanted more? Absolutely not! The South’s senators closed ranks against it and defeated the bill.

Events deprived Douglas of any silver lining he could have claimed. He could not say that the homestead bill gave northern freemen a good chance to take the now-open plains for themselves instead of for slavery. He set himself against nativism and so denied himself, to his credit, the chance to exploit anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fears. The Little Giant would have to meet his less than adoring public as the man who repealed the Missouri Compromise, and that man alone.

What could go wrong?

Two Conventions, Two Parties, and Two Americans

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

The Know-Nothing American Party had a Union degree. They had perhaps 1.5 million men pledged to stand for Union and against sectional agitation from North or South. They positioned themselves in every way they could as the new party of the Union and peace. If they lost in Virginia, just barely, they could make it good by winning the White House in 1856. But if they stood for Union, what kind of Union? The Union meant different things to different people. To moderate and pragmatic antislavery sorts, the Union provided a tool to restrain slavery. If the two came into conflict, slavery had to lose. No southern politician could dare to utter such a thing in public, Know-Nothing or not. For a great many of them, in increasing numbers as the 1850s wore on, the Union rested on preserving slavery. If the two came into conflict, the Union had to lose.

The Know-Nothings tried to put these diverse groups together in a single party with a single platform and promptly found out that the Union, to the southern delegates at their National Council in Philadelphia, meant the Union that the Kansas-Nebraska Act made. To many of their northern counterparts, it meant the Union that the Kansas-Nebraska Act unmade. They could agree on hating Catholics, except for the Louisiana delegation, and the foreign-born. But inveighing against “the incubus of Popery” only got you so far. The slave states forced through a pro-Nebraska platform and a large portion of the northern delegates quit the convention. Henry Wilson, the club with which Henry Wise beat Thomas Stanhope Fluornoy back in Virginia, led them out.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The Know-Nothing rump tried to woo them back, but when the party adopted the majority platform with its pro-Nebraska language twelve northern states refused the overtures. They included all of New England and the Old Northwest. The Indiana delegation left with a parting shot that the majority platform, contrary to the party’s stated Unionism, would only sow more sectional discord. This made for quite the spectacle, but the forces of northern nativism did not quite give up on their new party. They hoped for, and got, a second chance in February, 1856.

The party’s second try began auspiciously. The pro-Nebraska platform plank went into the trash. But then the South, with the help of New York, killed a resolution in favor of restoring the Missouri Compromise. If the pro-Nebraska side could not win, then the anti-Nebraska side could not win either. In reaction to that, fifty northern delegates representing eight states walked out and formed their own convention. The rump said good riddance this time and nominated Millard Fillmore for president. The split, foreshadowing later division, resulted in northern, antislavery nativists calling themselves North Americans and southern, proslavery nativists calling themselves South Americans.

Even had the Know-Nothings somehow come together in a miraculous, if horrifying, flowering of racial and religious hatred they would still have had to contend with other weaknesses. Other parties had machines, but at least tried to look democratic and open. The Know-Nothings vested almost unlimited power in single leaders. They deputized men who could create lodges and orders as they wished on their own authority. Then those orders and those alone elected delegates to conventions to make party rules and elect officers. Party machine nothing, this looked more like private fiefdoms directly empowered to buy their own elections and then encouraged to do so. In the New York convention, 1600 could have come. A mere 953 did and of those, only 482 participated in nominating a man for governor…with all of 243 votes. This looked more like a secret oligarchy than any kind of political party. Crusty Virginia and South Carolina aristocrats might swoon at that, but to the rest of the United States mass politics had long ago become the American way.