Did Stephen Douglas really tell a Chicago audience to go to hell?

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Before I get into the usual, I want to offer a warm welcome to any new readers coming here courtesy of Ophelia Benson’s kind sharing of my posts about The Economist. Most of my writing concerns past injustices, if often those which often have relevance to us today. That naturally requires a fair bit of crawling through historical sources as well as using the work of historians. I do not count myself properly among the latter as I lack the usual training and credentials. I do aspire to accuracy, fairness, and to educate myself and others. I don’t know about others, but I’ve learned a great deal since I started this project. Please keep all this in mind when reading my posts and don’t hesitate to offer corrections, points not considered, or questions, or any other constructive feedback.

Also, as this post concerns correcting a past error of mine and trying to explore how it came about, new readers should know that usually my posts run more toward narrative and analysis than chasing a single quotation across multiple out of print books. I’m not always this boring.

That said, I must depart the Territory of Kansas and its incipient struggle over slavery in the early spring of 1855 and wind back the clock to September 1, 1854, just over one hundred and sixty years ago. Some time back, I wrote a post about Stephen Douglas holding a mass meeting in Chicago on the heels of his abolition of the Missouri Compromise in the KansasNebraska Act. By opening land previously reserved for free white men to settle to slavery, he won himself exactly as many friends among the free white men of the North as one might expect.

Douglas expected to have a tame meeting which would pass resolutions lauding him, or at least mollify his critics. The crowd did not oblige and instead heckled him mercilessly. Douglas lost his temper and began insulting them. Finally he concluded with this:

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

I made sure to share the story with all of my friends. The thought of a nineteenth century statesman losing his temper in public and telling critics to go to hell frankly tickles me. I got it from Allen Nevins’ The Ordeal of the Union, Volume Two: A House Dividing. He gave a citation, but I took him at his word.

It appears that I ought not have done so. Nichole Etcheson begins Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era with a brief recapping of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and reaction to its passage. She references Douglas’s rally:

On his return to the west, Douglas was unable to make himself heard among his own constituents. For two hours, hecklers in a Chicago crowd shouted him down as he attempted to speak. He finally gave up.

Recognizing the event, I dug into Etcheson’s endnotes to see if she mentioned Douglas’ behavior in more detail there. Etcheson knew the story but has bad news for those of us, herself included, entertained by the anecdote:

Alas, the delightful story that Douglas ended his attempts by informing the audience “It is now Sunday morning; I’ll go to church, and you may go to hell” appears to be a myth. Douglas actually finished speaking before midnight on a Friday evening.

Etcheson cites Rawley’s Race and Politics: Bleeding Kansas and the Coming of the Civil War. I don’t have Rawley to check, though his book sounds quite interesting and had I known about it a few weeks ago I might have gotten a copy. I do, however, have Nevins’ citations that I can look through. For the “go to hell” line he lists the Chicago Tribune of September 2. The Tribune has that issue scanned and online, if not in the best quality. Reading through it one sees how heavily Nevins depended upon the text. He follows its narrative very closely, hitting all the same high points. Nevins’ account runs on pages 337 and 338 if anybody has the book and wants to follow along. But the Tribune has nothing about that final line.

Obviously Nevins did not get the line from the Tribune. He also cites Milton’s Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless Warfirst printed in 1934 and last in 1963. This puts it in that frustrating vintage of books still within copyright but not likely to see reprinting. Occasionally universities digitize them anyway, but I had no luck finding Milton. I did find a review that described the book as very laudatory to Douglas, going so far as to claim that had he won the 1860 election he would have prevented the Civil War.

With Milton in unavailable, I have just Nevins’ final citation to work with, Allen Johnson’s Stephen A. Douglas from 1908. As the copyright on that work expired decades ago, Project Gutenberg has it:

At a quarter past eight, Douglas began to address the people. He was greeted with hisses. He paused until these had subsided. But no sooner did he begin again than bedlam broke loose. For over two hours he wrestled with the mob, appealing to their sense of fairness; but he could not gain a hearing. Finally, for the first time in his career, he was forced to admit defeat. Drawing his watch from his pocket and observing that the hour was late, he shouted, in an interval of comparative quiet, “It is now Sunday morning—I’ll go to church, and you may go to Hell!” At the imminent risk of his life, he went to his carriage and was driven through the crowds to his hotel.

Johnson’s admiration for Douglas comes across even in this brief passage, where he casts the crowd as clearly in the wrong and Douglas as nothing more than a calm voice of reason pushed too far. But the fact that he admired Douglas doesn’t mean Johnson just invented the line. He cites the September 6 New York Times. The Times archives live behind a paywall so I can’t get to them, but given the Tribune’s writer had things direct from the scene and published the very next day, and it had no reason to whitewash Douglas’ behavior on the matter, I give its version priority.

Thus, Gentle Readers, as best I can determine from the sources on hand Etcheson has the right of it and I told you a story that didn’t happen. Stephen Douglas did not tell his audience to go to hell. Nevins, Johnson, and I all appear to have had it wrong. Sorry.

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